Editor's Notebook: Which OSHA Do You Know?

OSHA the ogre or OSHA the dedicated public safety agency which identity is real? Our 2005 National Safety Survey may shed some light.

by Stephen G. Minter

The recent debate in the U.S. House of Representatives over H.R. 742, the bill introduced by Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., illustrates the continuing schism over OSHA, an agency that is 35 years old but remains an ideological lightning rod. The Norwood bill would allow small businesses to recover their legal costs if they successfully mount a challenge to an OSHA citation.

Norwood's view, one shared by many Republicans in the House, is that OSHA is a regulatory bully and that small businesses often are wrongly targeted by the agency. His bill is designed to even the playing field. With a chance to recoup legal fees, Norwood argues, many small employers will choose to fight unfounded citations.

House Democrats, on the other hand, argued that the effect of H.R. 742 will be to inhibit a weak OSHA from bringing action against employers except in the most egregious instances. The threshold for prosecution will be so high that the agency will turn its back on many violations.

Given this Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde debate over OSHA, it may be instructive to see how occupational safety and health professionals, the group of citizens arguably most in touch with the agency, view it. In our 2005 National Safety Survey, more than 1,000 EHS professionals answered seven questions about the agency's competence and resources.

  • Is OSHA adequately funded? Only 23 percent of our respondents said the agency has enough money to do its job properly. Now, this doesn't tell us why they think more money is needed. It could go to hire more inspectors, to spur development of standards or to provide further compliance assistance to businesses. Many safety and health professionals compare the OSHA budget of $468 million to EPA's funding of $8 billion and ask why the protection of working Americans seems to get short shrift.
  • Does OSHA have sufficient compliance officers? Some 76 percent of our respondents said "No." In their view, OSHA needs more "cops" on the beat to inspect the 6 million workplaces in its jurisdiction.
  • Does OSHA have sufficient authority to deal with the most serious cases? The other side of the OSHA reform debate has been that OSHA is a weak regulator and that it has too little power to prosecute employers who maintain the most dangerous workplaces. Some legislators, such as Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., have proposed tougher criminal sanctions in fatality cases. Our readers are fairly split on this issue 53 percent said the agency currently does not have sufficient enforcement power.
  • Are OSHA staff experts in occupational safety and health? Former OSHA Administrator John Henshaw crusaded for the agency to be seen as a national resource on occupational safety and health, and urged OSHA personnel to become certified professionals. But only 32 percent of our respondents recognize OSHA personnel as experts in their field. Clearly, many readers don't think OSHA knows their business and safety as well as they do.
  • Are OSHA area and regional offices useful resources for safety and health managers? Despite their doubts about OSHA expertise, 56 percent of respondents said "Yes."
  • Does OSHA provide authoritative information through its Web site? The agency scores a big win here. Some 76 percent of respondents answered "Yes," so the time and resources the agency has put into its Web site are paying off.
  • Have OSHA partnership programs promoted safety and health excellence? Our respondents also heartily endorsed OSHA's VPP and other initiatives designed to provide incentives for superior safety performance or provide particular industry groups with specialized safety and health information. A 70-percent majority said "Yes."

Readers may not have the greatest regard for particular OSHA officials, but they clearly appreciate the role that OSHA plays in protecting worker safety and think the government should devote more, not less, resources to this area.

Clarification

Due to space constraints, the EHS News item "Illinois Lawmakers Crack Down on Day Labor" that appeared in the July issue did not mention that Labor Temps Inc., which was pictured in the article, was one of several temporary labor agencies that provided input and expressed support for legislation aimed at regulating the temporary labor industry in the state. Including the picture of Labor Temps in the article was not meant to imply or suggest that Labor Temps is in any way associated with the alleged activities of some day labor agencies mentioned in the article.

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