What ORC Said 'When OSHA Listens'

The OSHA Listens forum, along with other steps being undertaken and considered by OSHA, are encouraging signs that the agency is willing to engage more meaningfully with its stakeholders in the policy and program development process. Deepening stakeholder engagement with OSHA, in the view of ORC, is essential if new ways are to be found to improve worker safety and health.

[Editor's note: The following article is adapted from the statement submitted by ORC Worldwide to OSHA in response to the agency's decision to hold a public meeting, “OSHA Listens,” on March 4.

Deepening stakeholder engagement with OSHA is essential if we are to find new ways to improve worker safety and health.

We were heartened by OSHA's responsiveness to the Dec. 8, 2009 OMB Open Government Directive advocating the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration. OMB's emphasis on public engagement as a way to enhance the government's effectiveness also is in complete alignment with the ORC Worldwide white paper issued on the eve of the national election in November 2008 titled, “Breaking the Cycle: New Approaches to Establishing National Workplace Safety and Health Policy.”

In the white paper, ORC advocated steps “to move toward breaking the cycles of confrontation, mistrust and stalemate that have long characterized many of the national policy debates over workplace safety and health.” ORC offered “recommendations for improving the coordination, cooperation and level of engagement among the broad range of stakeholders …,” arguing that “significant and lasting progress is most likely to occur only if the stakeholders in the safety and health community insist on creating a new more collaborative infrastructure …”

ORC made four points in the white paper that it reiterated to OSHA. They fall under the rubrics of risk, metrics, engagement and permissible exposure limits (PELs). OSHA focused in one way or another on all four issues in its questions posed for this session.

  1. SHIFTING TO A RISK-BASED APPROACH

    On the subject of risk, ORC believes strongly that in order to fulfill its fundamental mission of reducing injuries and illnesses over the next decade, OSHA must adopt programs that emphasize the need to identify, assess and systematically control or eliminate workplace risks. This is a broader, more comprehensive and more sustainable approach to reducing injuries and illnesses than OSHA's historic approach that focuses primarily on compliance with the agency's hazard-based standards. It also is in keeping with the demands of the modern workplace and consistent with the programs that businesses and governments are adopting worldwide.

    To achieve this shift to a risk-based orientation, OSHA should develop policies and programs that promote the adoption of management systems focusing on the identification, assessment, prioritization and control of significant workplace risks. As ORC stated in its white paper, this should begin now and it could include a number of initiatives, such as:

    • Enhancing OSHA's Web site to provide a wider variety of tools and resources for the implementation of risk-based management systems;

    • Updating the agency's 1989 Safety and Health Program Guidelines to incorporate new information about managing risks from sources such as the ANSI Z10 consensus standard;

    • Considering the revival of a modified cooperative compliance program in accordance with the reviewing court's admonitions;

    • Disseminating information about the extremely valuable resources currently available (although not widely known to most of the U.S. safety and health community) from the European Union, which long-ago adopted a risk-based approach to workplace safety and health.

  2. IMPROVING OSH METRICS

    ORC has a long history of involvement with OSHA and its own member companies on the subject of improving the accuracy and usefulness of the injury and illness data required to be recorded under the OSH Act and the agency's regulations. Over time, it has become clear to us that there is far too much weight placed on injury and illness incidence rates as the predominant metric for measuring progress in protecting the safety and health of the American worker.

    The disproportionate reliance on a single set of “lagging” indicators extends from national policy-makers and Congress itself to the corporate boardroom and all the way down to the shop floor. This, in turn, contributes to pressure to underreport injuries and illnesses. More importantly, these outcome data only measure, after the fact, the extent to which an employer has failed to prevent employees from getting hurt or sick. They are not particularly useful in helping employers drive safety and health performance improvements.

    ORC member companies increasingly are adopting “leading” indicators — measures of actions and practices that are implemented before injuries or illnesses occur in order to reduce risk and prevent incidents that could result in injury or illness. Leading indicators are the performance drivers that communicate how outcome measures are to be achieved. For example, if a company sets goals and tracks improvements in the time it takes to correct hazards found during periodic self-inspections, or in reporting and investigating near-misses, the business is able to hold managers accountable for actions and practices that should result in reduced injuries and illnesses.

    ORC strongly encourages OSHA to lead an effort to develop a range of leading indicators that would supplement the injury and illness data and assist employers in improving performance. This would best be done through a broad stakeholder engagement process designed to result in a compendium of “effective practices” for employers.

  3. INCREASING STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT

    We believe that the establishment of meaningful processes to engage OSHA's stakeholders in the development of its policy and program initiatives is essential for OSHA to become a more effective agency. In an era in which transparency and public accountability are becoming a foundation both of responsible business practices and effective government, OSHA needs to deepen its rapport with the regulated community.

    A logical and important place to start is increasing the public's involvement in the development of compliance directives related to new safety and health standards. ORC and other stakeholders indicated we would be happy to work with OSHA in developing and piloting such a process.

  4. UPDATING PELS

    Finally, if there is any single issue on which virtually all OSHA stakeholders are agreed, it is that the agency's permissible exposure limits are woefully out of date. Since the 1991 court ruling overturning OSHA's 1989 PEL update, there have been modest attempts by groups of stakeholders to come up with possible approaches to addressing this gap in worker protection.

    We believe that it may be possible to craft a viable approach, but doing so will require OSHA's leadership and active engagement in its development. Previous efforts have failed at least in part because OSHA failed to play such a proactive role.


Frank White is senior vice president of ORC Worldwide and heads its occupational safety and health practice. Visit http://www.orcworldwide.com/hr/ehs/index.php for more information.

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