In an apparent effort to head off legislation pending in Congress, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has announced that, during an inspection, employers will no longer routinely have to provide the agency with voluntary self-audits of workplace safety and health conditions.
Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., earlier this year introduced legislation (H.R.1438) that would have made it far more difficult for OSHA to obtain a company's self-audits. It is not clear whether OSHA's recent retreat on the controversial issue, published Oct. 6 in the Federal Register, will satisfy Ballenger, who chairs the House's subcommittee on work force protections.
"It's a step in the right direction," a Ballenger spokesperson said, "but it's just one step." Ballenger delayed marking up his bill until OSHA published its new policy. Now that it has been released, the bill "may very likely be marked up next year," the spokesman added.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., also introduced a bill related to voluntary audits. Known as the Safety Advancement for Employees (SAFE) Act (S. 385), it would exempt a business from OSHA's civil penalties for two years if the employer use consultation services of a third-party auditor. OSHA opposes Enzi's proposal.
Some business owners have complained that OSHA's previous policy of using self-audits in enforcement proceedings discourages responsible employers from conducting voluntary self-audits. Even as OSHA backed down from its old policy position, the agency disputed this criticism.
"There is no evidence," OSHA argued in a statement accompanying the shift, "that a significant number of employers have stopped doing self-audits or that OSHA has discouraged employers from initiating them."
The new policy should benefit employers who do self-audits in at least two ways. First, OSHA now states, "It will not use such reports as a means of identifying hazards to focus inspection activity."
Second, if an audit identifies a hazardous condition in the workplace and the employer promptly takes corrective action, OSHA will not use the audit report as evidence of a willful violation. Instead, the agency will treat the audit as evidence of the employer's good faith. As a result, some employers might face fine reductions of up to 25 percent.
Commenting on the self-audit policy shift, OSHA Administrator Charles N. Jeffress expressed recognition for the value of such reports. "Voluntary self-audits, when properly conducted, can help employers discover and correct safety and health hazards, reduce penalties and prevent similar violations in the future," Jeffress said.
Under the new policy, OSHA still reserves the power to obtain self-audits when it has an independent basis to believe that a specific safety or health hazard exists.
Ballenger's spokesperson pointed out an added caveat for employers: Because the new position on self-audits is only a policy statement, OSHA is not always required to follow it.