OSHA Walks the Tightrope

July 28, 2003
National Safety Survey respondents see signs of improvement, but more is needed from this agency in transition.

by Stephen Minter

Educator. Enforcer. Consultant. Rulemaker. Proselytizer. When it comes to what safety and health managers want from OSHA, the most consistent answer appears to be "more."

Many respondents to the National Safety Survey said the workplace safety agency is on the right track when it comes to offering more help to industry. Ultimately, they believe, OSHA can accomplish more through compliance assistance and fostering a sense of common purpose than through enforcement.

"OSHA should continue the cooperative activities and have more ways that businesses can have contact with them through training seminars," said a safety supervisor. "I think familiarity will bring a closer working relationship and be a step toward a safer and healthier workplace."

"Drop the adversarial attitude," said one safety and industrial hygiene specialist with international experience. "I've learned that in other countries where there is more of a teamwork attitude, people tend to feel better about doing what is required."

"Basically, I believe that OSHA needs to change along with the people that they are regulating," a human resources manager in Ohio stated. "We have to be aware that corporations are moving their production lines and plants to other countries for a reason. If we had a little bit more of a team attitude or a trusting relationship, then we could all be more successful at accomplishing our goals and objectives."

Many respondents praised OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs and said it should be expanded. "I think it would be valuable for OSHA to showcase some of the STAR facilities in a professionally produced documentary-type video for distribution to parties considering VPP," said an environmental/safety technician in the oil industry.

Henshaw on Target

With 45 percent of Occupational Hazards' readers giving John Henshaw excellent or good marks, the veteran safety and industrial hygiene manager's attempts to put more emphasis on partnerships with industry draws a positive response.

"He is focusing more on reducing injuries rather than just doing compliance inspections," said Finn Schefstad, director, safety management for MeadWestvaco. He praised Henshaw for his collaborative, team-focused management style.

John Koch, manager, regulatory affairs for Watson-Standard Co., approved of Henshaw's attempt to push the OSHA bureaucracy "to come up with some new ideas." Koch attributed some of Henshaw's effectiveness to his health and safety background. "The old concept that if you know how to manage, you can manage anything doesn't necessarily hold true. You need to know something about what your business is."

While most respondents favored increased resources for outreach, some insisted that OSHA's biggest bang for the buck comes through enforcement.

"OSHA should carry out strict regulatory enforcement, which then reflects in improved safety and health programs, said one veteran safety consultant. "OSHA was never meant to directly improve safety and health."

"Crack down on enforcement and send a strong message. The laxity of OSHA is analogous to the SEC. Some companies cook the books, others disregard OSHA, EPA, etc.," observed a safety consultant. "I am very skeptical of OSHA's ability to get results with voluntary programs, because they only help one facility/company at a time. Tough compliance, on the other hand, sends a broad and powerful message across industry and that is OSHA's mission."

Field Contacts

But for many companies, their opinions of OSHA are forged in their encounters with compliance officers, and our survey indicates their experiences can vary greatly. Some 30 percent of our respondents indicated their facilities had been inspected by OSHA within the past year. Of those who had been inspected, 26 percent rated the "conduct, knowledge and professionalism" of the inspector as excellent, while 38 percent rated him good, 23 percent average, 7 percent fair and 6 percent poor.

A safety manager praised an OSHA compliance officer who had recently conducted a "very thorough" inspection in his facility as being "very knowledgeable and level headed."

An EHS compliance officer in New York said his company had gone through two inspections in the past two years. "I have to admit that the inspectors were pleasant and professional. There was no witch hunt. When they did not understand something, they genuinely listened to our explanations."

But a number of readers said OSHA inspectors all too often enter a facility with the attitude that they will find something, no matter how minor, to justify their visit. This nitpicking attitude does little to improve safety, they argue, but much to build resentment.

"The safety police attitude of OSHA marches on," reported a corporate director of safety and training. "We had a lockout issue. A supervisor was the authorized lockout employee. The supervisor locked out the equipment, had the only key and controlled the lockout. Other employees were in the area. OSHA wanted those employees to lock out the equipment in addition to the supervisor's lock. We now have five locks on the same piece of equipment. Such a situation is not good safety management; it is just plain stupid. The end result of such nonsense is that the employees have less regard for our safety 'rules' because they think it is stupid, too. It lowers their overall respect for our practices and therefore increases their risk."

While Henshaw has envisioned OSHA as a national resource for occupational safety and health expertise, some respondents said agency personnel still overlook serious hazards. "Having undergone four inspections in eight years, I still marvel over how they can miss something like the lack of a machine guard when they are standing directly in front of the machine and yet spot an extension cord that might or might not present a tripping hazard," said a SH&E manager in North Carolina.

Not surprisingly, many safety managers voiced support for increased training and certification of OSHA compliance officers. "OSHA needs to really train its people not just in the rules, but in the industries they are inspecting," said a plant engineer. "Then the inspectors need to be able to inspect facilities, find things that are wrong, be able to provide multiple examples of the ways other companies have dealt with the problem, and then give the companies enough time to get things fixed before dropping the heavy hammer of fines."

One respondent said in order to improve its work force, OSHA will need to upgrade their pay. "You ask any EHS professional if they would work for OSHA and you'll hear the same thing: 'They don't pay well.' Many of today's compliance officers have worked for the federal government or are otherwise in the system and have transferred into this higher grade position. This doesn't prove beneficial to anyone because you have, in many instances, individuals that are not qualified...."

OSHA Standards

Nearly two-thirds of our respondents supported efforts to update OSHA's permissible exposure limits. "The old PELs are woefully out of date," said Karen Yeadon, manager, safety and environmental services for Rosemount Inc., a division of Emerson Process Management. "We know so much more about the chemicals." And she added, operating in Minnesota, she is already subject to the stricter limits that federal OSHA was unsuccessful in implementing.

Respondents reserved their biggest support for an injury and illness prevention standard, which OSHA formerly referred to as a safety and health programs standard. Asked what one thing OSHA could do to improve its effectiveness, a health and safety manager said, "Require in a vehicle, such as an illness and injury prevention program, that company management have specific activities and involvement in their respective safety programs."

A number of safety managers said OSHA should step up efforts to simplify and clarify its standards. Others said OSHA should look for ways to speed up the standards-setting process, particularly with regard to updating the PELs.

While many safety professionals give the current OSHA administration credit for trying to change, they realize that the process will be slow and not without risks. "Even as OSHA ponders changing its role, people will be slow to accept it," said a corporate EHS manager. "Kinda like a 'no-dicker' sticker on an automobile after years of being told only an idiot would pay full price."

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