Taking the Measure of OSHA

July 14, 2004
Despite support for OSHA's attempts to promote alliances and serve as more of a resource to businesses, respondents to the 2004 National Safety Survey give higher marks to the state-plan states than they do to federal OSHA.

Some 57 percent of safety managers and professionals who completed our survey said the states have more effective job safety enforcement programs.

Weyerhaeuser's Chris Redfearn, for example, gives high marks to the Washington and Oregon state plans for "very good Web sites, very good support materials, excellent capability to support you if you have questions or you would like them to come out and provide some assistance." While he credits federal OSHA for a "pleasant trend to take the same type of approach in terms of education and supporting materials for businesses," he criticized the professionalism of some inspectors and was particularly disparaging of the post-citation negotiating process employed by OSHA. He said OSHA starts with a high figure for a fine, knowing that a negotiation will ensue and the penalty amount will drop. Redfearn called the process an "outrageous use of resources." He said: "Let's go out and try and prevent incidents by coaching and counseling, and by all means hold recalcitrant employers very accountable, but let's not play this poker game."

Proving perhaps that what goes on in Washington stays in Washington, 43 percent of respondents said they did not know if OSHA's current budget of $457 million is inadequate, about right or too high. Respondents were roughly split between believing the budget was inadequate or about right. Only 7 percent thought Congress was providing the agency with too much money. Bruce Schryver of ICW Group said many people in business failed to appreciate the full impact of OSHA and related agencies such as NIOSH. "They provide us with a tremendous amount of information and intelligence on occupational health and safety."

Schryver gave good marks to OSHA for its efforts to build alliances and promote voluntary compliance, but he cautioned that many of the initial Voluntary Protection Program members were large companies with exemplary safety programs and that more needed to be done to reach small employers, such as residential contractors.

Adequate Deterrent?

When asked if OSHA's current penalty structure was an adequate deterrent to wrongdoing by companies, 54 percent said yes. Tom Crowley of Bovis Lend Lease Global Alliance, however, said OSHA needs both more resources and tougher penalties. "We constantly see what I call light sentences for some pretty egregious situations, including fatalities," said Crowley. He contrasted that with a situation he was involved with in Alberta several years ago when he was investigating a fatality involving a meatpacker. "I went to bed that night exhausted from both travel and the day's work. About 3 a.m., there is a knock on my door and it was another Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman who was not involved in the investigation that day. 'Mr. Crowley, the minister of labor asked that we pick up your passport.'" Although his passport was returned without any delay, Crowley said the incident reinforced how serious the death of a worker is. Moreover, Crowley contrasts the "slap on the wrists" given to companies for serious safety failures with his own company's efforts in similar work environments showing that "it can be done without people dying."

Consultant Steven High also believes that OSHA's current penalties are inadequate. While a serious violation goes up to $7,000, he pointed out, OSHA often negotiates the penalty to $1,000 or less. "We end up prosecuting people for damaging the environment at a much more significant level than we do for killing somebody in the workplace," he said. Still, High was cautious about proposals to create criminal sanctions for willful violations.

Other respondents also disagreed with national policy that seemed to place more of a priority on the environment than the safety and health of workers. Noting that EPA's budget was several times that of OSHA, Denver's Steve Brendlinger called for both more funding and more clout for the worker safety agency. "We should protect the environment, but shouldn't we be equally interested in investing in the people that live in that environment to make sure they live a good life?"

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