Inside Story: Working for OSHA

Aug. 11, 2004
What do agency employees those faceless bureaucrats so often ridiculed by American industry think of their jobs, their mission and the institution they work for? The answers may surprise you.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been around for more than 30 years. In that time, plenty of ink has been spilled writing about whether the agency is fulfilling its mission to protect American workers and debating the way in which it does it.

But during all the policy debates, little has been written about those at the agency who show up for work every day. How do OSHA inspectors spend their time? What do they like or not like about their jobs? How does the OSHA they know differ from what outsiders think is going on at the agency?

The Mission

The most striking fact to emerge from these interviews is how mission-driven OSHA employees are. When asked what they liked about their jobs, everyone, from the most contented to the harshest critic, had a similar answer.

"Going into a company that is deficient in some areas and making it safer, protecting the American worker that's our mission," is how Stacey McAndrews of the Oklahoma City area office explains what she likes about her job. Everyone we interviewed said much the same.

OSHA officials who work in the national office generally don't have the opportunity to change workplaces as directly as those in the field. Yet for some, keeping in touch with this mission appears to be all the more important.

"What I most like about my job is the mission-driven people I deal with in the field and in D.C.," is how one national office employee put it.

More than 2,000 people work full time for federal OSHA.

For this article, federal OSHA's national office offered unprecedented access to the agency field inspectors, all of whom appeared to speak candidly. Not surprisingly, most also requested anonymity when they spoke critically. In addition to inspectors, we also interviewed current and former OSHA employees who have or had supervisory positions in the national and area offices.

Is "Gotcha" Gone?

For years, OSHA has been saddled with a "gotcha" reputation, an image of inspectors who like nothing better than to hand out as many citations as possible to the hapless employer. That's not the way Craig Weber sees his job now.

A compliance officer and safety engineer in the Corpus Christi, Tex. area office with 7 years of experience, Weber says he's glad "we are being encouraged to communicate more with the employer."

Weber, McAndrews and others maintain that in addition to having a compliance assistance specialist in each area office, enforcement personnel are now adopting more of a teaching role during inspections.

Those who believe OSHA is staffed by inspectors obsessed with a policeman's mentality may be surprised to discover another commonly expressed view among those we interviewed: many inspectors say they like the new "kinder, gentler" OSHA.

"Personally, I like the new educational part of enforcement," says Weber. "It's been an adjustment for me, and it's a challenge I've enjoyed."

Mirth Deshler, a safety compliance specialist who has been with the agency since 1987, makes a similar point. "It is very rewarding to have an employer say, 'I thought this was going to be much worse than it was. You aren't doing anything like what I heard about OSHA.'"

Weber and others say they like the new approach for a reason familiar to experienced teachers. "When you have to train somebody, you end up learning the material better yourself," says Weber. Others say the shift is popular because it reduces conflict and job stress.

Nevertheless, all inspectors may not be adopting the new approach. Some OSHA employees say the agency has a number of retired members of the U.S. military who tend to be more comfortable working as a "cop" than as a teacher.

Weber, along with other inspectors we talked to, say the shift in emphasis accelerated under the Bush administration, though not all agree the change has been so abrupt.

Rose Ohar, the assistant area director and response team leader in the Methuen, Mass. area office with almost 20 years of experience, believes OSHA enforcement people have provided compliance assistance all along. "We have evolved over the years," said Ohar. "I don't see too much difference between Republicans and Democrats."

Compliance officers, who make up the largest number of OSHA employees, say they still prefer their enforcement role to that of the compliance assistance specialist.

"When you do enforcement, you get to correct the problem right away," explains Weber. "With compliance assistance, you don't always see the result so soon."

Inspectors report that employers aren't the only ones wary of OSHA. Fearing the loss of their jobs, some employees may initially resist an OSHA inspection. While this can be demoralizing, several inspectors say they have never forgotten employees who later called up and personally thanked them for making the workplace safer.

Filling out this picture, many who work for OSHA discussed additional aspects of the job they liked:

  • The opportunity to see diverse work environments, learn how things are made, and "see what it's really like to work in America";
  • Meeting a variety of different and interesting people;
  • The ability constantly to learn more about safety and health.

Gumming Employers?

Many inspectors say that while OSHA's approach toward enforcement has changed, the public's perception of the agency has not. Nearly every OSHA inspector we interviewed believes the public has an exaggerated sense of the agency's power.

"Before I came to work for OSHA, I didn't realize how many people are afraid of us," says Craig Hrabal, a safety engineer in the Ft. Worth office who worked for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before coming to OSHA 3 years ago.

"Many people think that OSHA can easily shut down an unsafe company and this is not true," comments Marc Snitzer, an industrial hygienist in the Cleveland office who has worked for OSHA since 1985. In reality, OSHA can post a notice of "imminent danger" and request an immediate shut-down if an uncorrected situation exists that poses an immediate threat to workers. But Snitzer says this power is rarely used, because most companies are cooperative.

Ed Conway, a safety engineer in Providence, R.l., points out that many complainants have the same misconception as employers. "They want me to shut down a company for not having machine guards," he says. "I try to explain we're not in the business of putting people out of business, but of helping companies and people flourish."

Several inspectors said OSHA penalties are too low to threaten most companies. "We don't bite employers," says Weber. "We just gum them a little." Moreover, as Hrabal noted, the legal costs resulting from a death or serious injury can dwarf OSHA penalties.

Inspections: Quantity vs. Quality

No job is perfect, and working for OSHA is no exception. When asked about the challenges agency employees faced and what they didn't like about their jobs, several themes emerged.

For a variety of reasons, industrial hygienists (IHs) tended to be more critical of OSHA than safety specialists.

"The agency now is really focused on numbers of inspections, and I think as a result of the push for quantity, quality has gone by the wayside," says one industrial hygiene inspector.

The agency wants to reduce "lapse time," e.g. the period between when the inspection is opened and when the citations go out the door. But inspectors who submit samples to the OSHA lab may have to wait up to two months for the results.

The result? "I don't think the majority of IHs are submitting air samples to the lab for analysis," comments one inspector. "The agency is focusing more on safety than on health."

While IHs worried more about the quantity vs. quality issue, some safety inspectors also referred to it. Several said area directors were "taking heat" from those above them for sticking up for the quality of inspections.

Industrial hygienists also complained about outdated permissible exposure limits (PELs) and worn-out sampling equipment. They wanted more agency activity in such IH areas as occupational asthma, skin diseases and indoor air quality.

Kill the Lawyers

Rather than working out in the field doing inspections, OSHA compliance officers said they spent anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of their time writing up and legally documenting the citations. The time spent preparing a case to withstand legal challenge was one of the most frequent complaints voiced by OSHA inspectors.

"The job is more legally-oriented now than it was even a few years ago," explains Weber. "The number of legal conflicts is decreasing because we're more collaborative, but the ones we do have are more intense." One inspector attributed this situation to the administration's strategy of trying to work with employers when possible but to go after the "bad actors." In addition, OSHA has been under pressure to pursue criminal prosecutions more aggressively, and this requires even more legal homework than the typical civil case.

Inspectors said they dread the methods of "big-city" attorneys who use tough tactics to try to destroy or anger agency employees on the witness stand. In other cases, opposing lawyers seek to wear OSHA out with endless delays and legal filibustering.

OSHA inspectors also complained about having to deal with the agency's own lawyers who "by nature don't believe us." The tension may result in part from differences in training and temperament. "I don't enjoy having to think like a lawyer," explains one inspector. "I'm an engineer."

The Inconsistency Problem

Industry has long complained of inconsistencies in the way OSHA interprets standards. The regulated community may be surprised to discover many OSHA inspectors agree.

"They don't seem to want consistency," says one inspector. "Each region is a fiefdom, and there's no sharing of information between regions. I brought up the consistency issue early in my career and they didn't want to address it."

For inspectors, the consistency issue is broader than differences in the way they interpret standards. "It goes from the forms we use or the ways computers are set up in different regions, to how judges interpret standards. I know it's frustrating for employers, and it is for us too, but we're too low on the totem pole to affect that," says one compliance officer.

Some OSHA employees say changes in a new administration's political leadership also hurt consistency. According to this view, while OSHA's mission does not change, the means are so altered the end is hard to achieve.

"What do you want us to do this year?" asks one agency employee. "Is it benzene, ergonomics or VPP [Voluntary Protection Programs]?"

Political realities seem to cut the agency's national office productivity in half, according to one OSHA official, while making long-term planning all but impossible. "It takes 1 year to train the new [political] people, the second and third years you get something done, and then the fourth year you shut it down for the next election."

Sometimes there is tension between an administration's new policies and the ways inspectors are evaluated. For example, while they are told to collaborate more with employers, inspectors and area directors are still evaluated partially in terms of the number of willful and serious citations handed out.

A House Divided?

Some current and former OSHA employees say morale at the national office "is at an all-time low," due to a variety of factors.

"It's the arrogance of ignorance and it's gotten worse," complains one long-time OSHA staff member of the current administration. "It started with [assistant secretary for OSHA] Joe Dear, but [Charles] Jeffress kicked it into high gear."

Again, industrial hygienists appear to be the most disaffected, complaining those with the expertise needed to do rulemaking have become alienated by the agency's failure to issue health standards. Many have left, while others were reassigned to posts where their talents are wasted. As a result, they argue, OSHA now lacks the expertise to issue health standards, even if it wanted to.

Others complained of career executives more concerned with furthering their own careers, the political correctness of their decisions and micro-managing others, than with the agency's mission of protecting workers. "It's hard enough to do your job, without managers telling you who you can talk to and who you can't," said one OSHA source.

One national office source sums up the problem this way, "Kissing ass is not required, but it is highly desired."

Morale out in the field seems to be better, perhaps because field inspectors are closer than the national headquarters staff to seeing the concrete results of the agency's popular mission. In addition, many inspectors welcome the reduction in stress that follows OSHA's kinder, gentler approach.

The key factor in morale outside the national office appears to be the relationship between the area director and field inspectors. Some employees in area offices reported problems similar to those in the national office, e.g. being singled out for questioning authority and for desiring nothing more than open communication.

A more frequent complaint had to do with the decision to divide inspectors between a "rapid response team" responsible for complaints, and a "strat team" that deals with programmed inspections. Field inspectors say internal rivalry often develops between the two groups.

"I'd rather we had no 'teams' and all work together as a single team," says one battle-weary inspector.

What Happened to Daddy?

OSHA employees are well aware that their job can be a matter of life or death for American workers. For many, focusing on the transcendence of this mission helps to place in perspective the inevitable problems of office and national politics. OSHA employees repeatedly emphasized the enormous satisfaction they derived from the unique and lasting significance of their work.

For inspectors, fatality investigations could be seen as a depressing confrontation with failure. But for those committed to the mission, even these cases can be an opportunity to serve the public.

OSHA's traditional role of protecting workers has often involved "afflicting the comfortable." As the agency tries to deal better with the families of those killed at work, Boudloche says she is now drawing strength from "comforting the afflicted."

"In fatality inspections, we are encouraged to work with families," says Boudloche. Inspectors are not grief counselors, but writing a report that explains to the families how a loved one died can be a comfort to them.

"My supervisor told me," continues Boudloche, "write your report so that when the children of the victim grow up, they can read it and know what happened to Daddy."

Sidebar: Top 10 Ways OSHA Employees Would Change Their Agency

  • Reduce clerical and legal work inspectors have to do so they can spend more time in the field doing inspections.
  • Spend more money to change public perception of OSHA: tell employers OSHA wants to help them, use public service announcements on billboards and radio ads to teach workers about workplace safety.
  • Reduce inspections based on "bogus" complaints, when workers use a complaint as a weapon to get back at their employer.
  • Consolidate the regions to improve enforcement consistency and efficiency and break down bureaucratic barriers that require cases to be reviewed at area, regional and national level.
  • Give OSHA access to state workers' compensation data.
  • Devote some OSHA penalty money to the families of workers killed or injured on the job.
  • Increase budget to improve computer software, hire more inspectors and raise salaries.
  • Issue more significant standards, and update old ones, especially health standards.
  • Consolidate "strat teams" and "rapid response teams" so that all inspectors do both programmed and complaint inspections.
  • Have top leadership interact more with staff and field people.

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