OSHA: 2005, 2006 and Beyond

Hurricanes put a spin on 2005, but Jonathan Snare, Rich Fairfax and Paula White, three of OSHA's key players, are looking forward to smoother sailing in 2006.

Jonathan Snare has spent a year as acting OSHA administrator, weathering hurricanes and criticism in his quest to fulfill the agency's mission, which is "to assure the safety and health of America's workers by setting and enforcing standards; providing training, outreach and education; establishing partnerships; and encouraging continual process improvement in workplace safety and health."

Noting that the day we spoke, Dec. 29, 2005, marked the 35th anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Snare commented, "The relevant and important role this agency has played over the years was affirmed this year ... we have had a successful year meeting our mission, despite some challenges."

Those challenges include responding to hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma while still trying to conduct business as usual. OSHA was charged with offering traditional OSHA services such as technical assistance to workers and employers in the impacted counties that were declared disaster areas. In addition, the agency, as part of the National Response Plan, was responsible for providing technical support and assistance regarding worker safety and health to all the agencies federal, state and local responding to the hurricanes. OSHA staffers visited (and continue to visit) worksites throughout the area, providing guidance, passing out literature and fact sheets, conducting interventions and, when necessary, removing workers from situations the OSHA staffers feel are imminently dangerous. There have been 20,000 such situations, says Snare.

The agency has received some heat for not issuing citations to employers in the area who are violating occupational safety and health regulations. Snare says the agency will respond as usual to reports of fatalities and complaints, conducting full investigations and issuing citations where warranted. The agency has not gone soft on enforcement, he says; it is one part of the workplace safety picture.

Enforcement

Richard Fairfax, director of OSHA's enforcement programs, says that until the hurricane season of 2005 struck, the agency was on target to exceed its enforcement goals for FY 2006, which runs from Sept. 30 to Sept. 30. In FY 2005, the agency had a goal of conducting 37,700 inspections; the final tally was 38,714.

"The last few years, we've exceeded our goal. The only caution [for FY 2006] is the tremendous resources tied up with the hurricanes. We have people tied up in regions IV and VI who are still providing technical assistance," says Fairfax.

Fairfax says that as of Nov. 30, 2005, the agency had 960 workplaces that met the criteria for the agency's Enhanced Enforcement Program, designed to address employers who have been cited repeatedly but haven't corrected their problems, The initiative impacts establishments that received OSHA citations with the highest severity of willful violations, multiple serious violations at the highest level of severity, repeat violations at the originating establishment, failure-to-abate notices or a serious or willful violation associated with a fatality.

Roughly half of the 960 workplaces in the program in 2005 52 percent are construction-related, and 90 percent of the initial inspections were the result of a fatality. The program is doing so well that the plan is to write it into a compliance directive, which establishes policy and compliance procedures for OSHA and provides clarification for employers to comply with OSHA standards.

The Site-Specific Targeting Program, which targets companies with injury and illness rates generally twice the national average, remains a strong enforcement tool, says Fairfax. The agency sends out 13,000 to 14,000 letters each year to employers, and a certain percentage of those workplaces will receive a targeted inspection. The agency planned to conduct over 4,000 worksites last year and is finishing up 2005 inspections now. Letters for the 2006 SST program will be sent to employers in February, he adds.

In many cases, the compliance officers conducting those inspections will be better educated than in previous years. Programs started under former OSHA Administrator John Henshaw to encourage compliance officers and other staff members to receive professional certification as certified safety professionals or as certified industrial hygienists continue.

"It elevates the credibility of OSHA compliance officers," says Fairfax. "Mr. Henshaw had professional certification, and he worked as a safety professional. His thought was that a compliance officer coming into his facility should have the same level of education as he did."

All in all, says Fairfax, 2005 was a busy year and 2006 won't be any different. Although the overall injury and illness trend was down, fatalities increased. Fairfax admits, "We weren't happy." The result? "Increasing our efforts. Relooking at what we're doing to decrease fatalities and injuries and illnesses."

Fatal injuries from falls continue to be a concern, he says, adding that Regions IV and VI already the location of a lot of new construction and where thousands of new construction projects have sprung up as a result of the hurricanes have redoubled their efforts to discourage employers and employees from taking shortcuts by increasing enforcement and outreach. Fairfax notes that an increase in falls from ladders has the agency concerned, and says efforts are being made to produce educational materials and fact sheets to target those incidents.

The agency also is examining a number of issues related to industrial hygiene and chemical exposures. Offices with consultative programs are working on the local level with employers that manufacture spray-on truckbed liners, for example, to reduce the occurrence of occupational asthma from exposure to isocyanates.

Fairfax says he believes the agency's greatest success in recent years has been to do a better job of separating out those employers who need closer scrutiny from the 80,000 or so employers that submit injury and illness data to OSHA.

"We have enhanced enforcement for the employers that need it. We provide assistance for employers who need it. We provide educational materials for employers and workers who need them. I am a firm believer that most employers want to do the right thing. We have the tools to help them do that," says Fairfax.

Doing the Right Thing

One of the most popular programs ever launched by OSHA has been the Voluntary Protection Program. Nearly 1,400 worksites in federal and state-plan states participate in the program, which has grown 15 percent a year for the past 5 years. VPP sites typically have injury and illness rates 50 percent below the rates for their industries.

The best thing about VPP, says Paula White, OSHA's director of cooperative and state programs, is the fact that 70 percent of the participants mentor other sites. "These are model workplaces, and they are spreading that culture to other worksites," she says.

VPP continues to grow and the agency plans to expand programs such as the Corporate VPP program, in which six companies participated in 2005 on a corporate level, rather than on a worksite level. Six additional companies have asked to join the corporate program, and they will be entering the program, if they meet the criteria, in 2006. The VPP Challenge program, aimed at employers who are working toward VPP participation but need more mentoring before they are ready to apply, partners 12 administrators with 40 coordinators and the 60 employers who are active participants in the program. Those employers represent 21,000 employees and 82 unions, says White. Plans are to continue the growth of that program in 2006 as well.

Last year, the agency sponsored the first conference for small employers participating in the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP). There are 843 participants in the SHARP program 273 are new to the program this year and they tallied injury and illnesses rates approximately 25 percent below the BLS average for their industries, says White. The plan is to hold similar conferences which focus on best practices every year.

"One thing we will be focusing on in 2006 is improving our services to small businesses," says White. "We're setting up feedback groups to help small businesses and we plan to launch more programs specific to them."

Part of OSHA's mandate is to provide consultative programs for employers. Visitations to small businesses have increased by 53 percent, says White, and the agency logged a total of 31,500 consultative visits in FY 2005. "In the 30th year of the program, we reached one-half million visits," she proudly states.

Finally, says White, the agency will continue to develop its popular lineup of e-tools stand-alone, interactive, Web-based training tools on occupational safety and health topics and add to the lineup of 150 safety and health topics pages, which provide users with relevant reference materials including standards, directives and training materials.

White predicts 2006 will be no different than previous years. "We will continue on our path and focus our attention on continuous improvement in the services and tools we offer employers and workers."

2006

It is hard to predict exactly where OSHA will head in 2006, as the agency awaits confirmation of a new administrator, Edwin Foulke, who was nominated by President Bush in September.

Snare, who will serve as head of the agency until Foulke is confirmed by Congress or until another candidate is chosen, says he is particularly proud that the agency's approach of consultation, enforcement and education continues to be successful. The latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that workplace injuries and illnesses in 2004 declined by 2.5 percent. "The reduction in injuries and illnesses is a reflection of our successes. We've had 3 years with fatalities at historic lows," says Snare.

However, tragedies do continue to occur. Snare personally was involved with crafting the settlement agreement with BP following the investigation into the explosion at the company's Texas City, Texas, refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 170. The agency issued the largest penalty in its history $21.4 mllion and signed "a strong settlement agreement that calls for continued oversight," he says.

"I sign every letter [to the families of workers killed on the job] and it reminds me and others of our role. It's not about the numbers and statistics we talk about. It's about an individual coming home from work. Any time there's a fatality, that's a tragedy and a disappointment," Snare admits.

When asked how he would finish this sentence, "When Jonathan Snare was acting assistant secretary of OSHA, he ..." Snare replies, "successfully led the agency and talented staff in meeting the mission of promoting occupational safety and health in 2005.

"I led the agency through hurricanes and BP and we still met or exceeded our goals," he muses. "All in all, it was a successful year."

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