Chronicling OSHA in 2007: Comparisons With the Rest of the World

Although OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. pledged to accomplish a laundry list of items by the end of his tenure, safety and health experts maintain the agency isn’t doing enough to serve its mission. With the European Union and the rest of the world taking the lead in adopting innovative approaches to safety and health, these experts fear OSHA is being left behind in the dust.

In an interview with OccupationalHazards.com in December 2006, Foulke stated he expected three or four final rules to be issued by the end of his term in 2008. So far, only one standard – the direct final rule on employer-paid personal protective equipment (PPE) – was issued in 2007.

The agency’s tenacious focus on compliance assistance and alliance programs over enforcement and standard-setting initiatives prompted Joel Shufro, executive director for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) to describe the agency as “increasingly irrelevant to workers’ everyday lives” in OccupationalHazard.com’s analysis of OSHA last year.

Most stakeholders are hesitant to use the term “irrelevant” to describe OSHA, but they do wish the agency would shift its priorities from compliance assistance to standards setting and enforcement.

Tarnishing OSHA's Reputation

Charles Jefress, who was OSHA administrator during Clinton administration and currently is a chief administrative officer for the Legal Services Corp., opined that OSHA’s “non-aggressive” enforcement policy has created problems for the agency. He claims a lack of action has tarnished the agency’s reputation as an enforcement agency among the safety and health professionals counting on its presence and support for the work they do.

“OSHA has to have a presence that helps everyone in the safety field … and they should be very present to let folks [companies and workers] know that they are there and serious about standards and compliance,” Jeffress notes. “Also, OSHA has a responsibility to use its reputation as a safety and health agency as a way to motivate employers to comply.”

During his tenure as OSHA administrator, Jeffress said the agency did a better job of balancing compliance assistance with enforcement, attempting to allot an equal amount in the budget to each focus.

“I think we communicated a more balanced message about having compliance in the workplace and expecting that [employers] were going to continue to improve their safety and health programs,” Jeffress said. “And I don’t believe that same message is being communicated.”

Stakeholders such as American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) President Don Hart and Government Affairs Director Aaron Trippler say they support OSHA’s efforts to build partnerships and alliances. However, they said they wished the agency had taken more regulatory action, such as updating permissible exposure limits (PELS, the consensus-based limits that indicate how long an individual can be exposed to a particular substance without experiencing harmful effects.

“It’s something that everybody wants,” Hart asserts. “Industry wants it, labor wants it, everyone wants some kind of progress on the updates on the PELs and nothing happens and it’s frustrating for everybody.”

Lagging Behind

Many experts are concerned OSHA’s current approach has prompted it to lag behind other countries in adopting new occupational safety and health policies and standards. A case in point is the adoption of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), introduced by the United Nations in 2003, with the hope of global adoption by 2008. Three countries – New Zealand, Bahrain and Mauritius—have already adopted GHS. Japan, Australia, and Brazil have started implementation activities and the EU is currently drafting GHS legislation.

“Here we [U.S.] are entering 2008 and we have seen nothing,” Trippler exclaims. “We have put out some little advanced notice for some comments on the hazcom [standard] dealing with GHS, and that’s it.”

However, Trippler is quick to note that the reason why GHS and other standards haven’t been implemented stems from “a bigger problem” taking place in the federal government; where accomplishing initiatives seems to “take longer and longer.”

“Other countries aren’t looking at OSHA as a viable regulatory agency like they used to,” Trippler says.

EU and U.S. Comparisons

Frank White, senior vice president of ORC Worldwide, has had an opportunity to assess where OSHA is lacking and where other countries are ahead.

White was one of the speakers at the 5th Annual US - EU Joint Conference on Occupational Safety and Health in Portugal last November, and it was there that White said the difference between OSHA and EU’s methods in workplace injury and illness prevention became apparent.

“A lot of people in the room agreed that the EU had a much more integrated and collaborative approach to safety and health and is ahead of OSHA,” says White. “The United States tends to get stuck because no one agrees on anything. And we have these old standards that we are enforcing.”

An example, White points to what he perceives as OSHA and U.S. employers’ tepid treatment of workplace stress as an occupational hazard, comparing that response to that of the EU, which has been gung-ho in distributing public information and helpful guides about stress to workers. “In this country, it would be hard for industry and labor to even agree that there is stress in the workplace that ought to be addressed somehow,” says White.

Another fundamental difference between European and American approaches to safety and health is that European operations look at risks, not hazards, when performing assessments. According to White, the concept of risk includes not only hazards, but also the likelihood that hazards will occur. Risk identification is one of the objectives in the European Commission’s 5-year strategy to reduce the number of work-related illnesses and injuries in EU countries by 25 percent.

Despite OSHA’s challenges, Trippler points out that the agency still is very relevant to safety and health.

“Whether you are agree or disagree with what OSHA has done, you play the hand you are dealt,” he says. “It’s the only agency for workplace safety and health that we have and it’s still the best there is.”

In the next installment of our series, “Chronicling OSHA in 2007,” stakeholders discuss the upcoming presidential elections and the impact the new president and administration will have on the agency.

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