For 25 years, Nick Walters distinguished himself at OSHA, excelling in roles in the agency’s area, regional, national and state plan offices. In January, Walters transitioned to the position of vice president of Safety Engineering Services at Safety Controls Technology.
We thought that EHSToday.com readers might like to hear about Walters’ career at the agency and how he worked his way up from compliance officer to director of the nation’s largest OSHA region, his thoughts about the future of OSHA and what it’s been like to transition from OSHA to the private sector.
We think you’ll find his experience impressive, his answers honest and powerful and his thoughts about the future of the agency and his transition to the private sector intriguing.
Sandy Smith, EHSToday.com (EHS): You are the former regional administrator for OSHA in Chicago. How long were you with the agency and can you provide us some background about your time at OSHA (when you started at the agency, positions held, etc.).
Before taking my current position in the private sector in January, I spent 25 years at the forefront of occupational safety and health working for OSHA. During my tenure, I served in OSHA’s area, regional, national and state plan offices, completing many assignments critical to the agency and, I hope, becoming well respected in the labor and business communities.
I graduated summa cum laude from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL, with a bachelor of science in industrial technology – safety. I began my career with OSHA in 1992. Over the course of 14 years, I worked as a compliance officer, whistleblower investigator and regional audit team leader in the Aurora, Peoria and Chicago offices. I also obtained professional certification as a construction safety and health technician (CHST). In 2006, I was selected as the area director for the Peoria OSHA Office and was named the deputy regional administrator in 2010 and was then appointed regional administrator in 2012 for the Chicago Regional Office.
As area director in Peoria, Ill., and regional administrator in Chicago for more than 10 years, I oversaw more than 50,000 OSHA inspections and more than 350 significant cases, which included penalties in excess of $100,000.
As one of 10 OSHA regional administrators in the nation and as the regional administrator of the largest region, I was responsible for overseeing all OSHA programs in six states, including Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. I managed a staff of approximately 300, consisting of area directors, assistant regional administrators, compliance safety and health officers, compliance assistance specialists and whistleblower investigators. The coverage area affected more than 20 million employees and over 1 million business establishments.
I oversaw some of the largest OSHA enforcement cases in the country, including those involving multimillion-dollar penalties, criminal prosecutions, use of Section 11(b) of the OSH Act, multiple fatalities and catastrophes. I also served on numerous OSHA executive committees, which provided guidance on the establishment of national OSHA enforcement, whistleblower and compliance assistance policies. I led the agency’s participation in numerous emergency response events including oil spills, tornados and train derailments. I also worked in close collaboration with employers, associations, and workers to promote safe workplaces through OSHA partnerships, alliances and the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP).
Additionally, I served as the director for OSHA’s Directorate of Training and Education in Arlington Heights, Ill. In this position, I oversaw the training and development of all federal and state plan compliance officers, whistleblower investigators, consultants and federal managers through the OSHA Training Institute (OTI). I also was responsible for administering the OTI Education Center Program, the OSHA 10- and 30-Hour Outreach Training Program and the Susan Harwood Training Grants.
I conducted more than 150 public speaking engagements for OSHA and successfully settled thousands of cases involving OSHA citations in addition to providing testimony for the Secretary of Labor in OSHRC cases.
EHS: What made you decide to work at OSHA? Was it a job or a calling?
Walters: For me, working at OSHA was definitely a calling, not a job. When I began attending Northern Illinois University, like many students, I was undecided about my major and potential career options.
During this timeframe, I was also working in the agriculture industry and responded to an incident in which a co-worker was nearly killed after being struck by a tractor. This accident happened around the same time that I began my first occupational safety and health course. I was immediately drawn to this field.
While at NIU, I started an internship with OSHA and fell in love with the importance of the agency’s mission. After graduating from NIU, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to begin working for OSHA as a compliance safety and health officer. I wanted to make an impact on worker safety and health –OSHA was a perfect fit.
I have worked in many different roles with OSHA. I worked my way up within the organization from a compliance officer to one of ten regional administrators in the country.
During that time, I have seen many tragedies that have resulted in the loss of life and severely disabling injuries. Unfortunately, I have also spoken to numerous grieving family members after they have lost loved ones. None of these workers left home thinking that this would be their last day on earth or that they would never be able to function normally again. These experiences have ingrained in me the importance of safety and health in the workplace. Over the last 25 years, I have had the opportunity to help employers take the steps necessary to improve their companies and ensure that all workers go home safely each and every day.
For 25 years, Nick Walters distinguished himself at OSHA, excelling in roles in the agency’s area, regional, national and state plan offices. Click here for some of the highlights of his distinguished career.
EHS: What are some of your proudest moments as Chicago’s regional administrator?
Walters: In my 25 years with OSHA, I have seen a wide spectrum of employer commitment to worker safety. On one end of the spectrum, there are employers who are very committed to a strong safety and health management system. These are the type of companies that are in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program. On the other end of the spectrum there are employers who seem to work harder at violating regulations than they do at complying with them. These are the types of companies that end up involved in criminal prosecutions and egregious cases.
In my opinion, the vast majority of employers that OSHA inspects fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. They want to provide a safe workplace, but maybe do not know exactly what it takes to comply with OSHA requirements.
Some of my proudest moments as a regional administrator involved situations where OSHA was able to completely shift an employer’s outlook on workplace safety and health. I am referring to instances where OSHA had pursued criminal prosecution and/or egregious cases. These were clearly situations where worker safety was not high on the employer’s priority list.
After enforcement action was taken, the agency was able to change the employer’s philosophy toward safety and health during the settlement process. These employers committed to implementing effective safety and health management systems. The proud moments came when talking to company officials a year or two later and hearing about how successful their programs were, how they had significantly reduced their injury rates and how their companies had become more profitable as a result of their safety efforts.
EHS: What are some of the most unusual experiences you had as regional administrator?
Walters: While working with OSHA, I participated in numerous fatality investigations. Without a doubt, one of the most unusual experiences that I have ever had involved a fatality investigation where an employee of a roofing company fell through a skylight to his death.
What made this case unusual was the fact that after the fatality occurred, a management representative for the company brought fall protection equipment to the site and set it up, in between the time that the police left the site and OSHA arrived. The individual also coerced workers to provide false statements to the compliance officer. This was done with the intent of making OSHA think that the fall protection was in place at the time of the fatality. he company involved had been previously cited by OSHA for lack of fall protection on another site. The idea that the first thing on a manager’s mind after losing a worker was to change the scene of the accident left me astounded. This investigation resulted in the issuance of egregious fall protection citations and criminal prosecution of the manager.
EHS: Can you tell us about one of your most memorable cases and what made it so special.
Walters: One of my most memorable cases involved a fatality investigation that I conducted as a compliance safety and health officer. The victim was 19 years old and had only worked for the company for a couple of months. He had not been properly trained to operate the large computer-controlled horizontal turret lathe that he was running the night of the accident. The lathe was a large machine that ran at very high speeds while performing metal machining operations. In addition to the lack of training, a safety switch had been bypassed on the machine allowing it to run at full speed with no guard in place.
The victim became entangled in the turning part and was killed while operating the machine. This case was the most memorable for me because the mother and father of the victim came to the facility the day of the fatality, while I was in the process of conducting my investigation, and asked to speak to me. After attempting to console them, along with explaining the OSHA investigation process, the mother asked me two questions:
“Did my baby die alone?”
“Did my baby suffer?”
I will always remember these two questions. People in the safety and health business often quote statistics like the number of fatalities, number of injuries and number of illnesses. Whenever I hear these numbers, I think about this case. Every one of those numbers was someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, brother or sister. This case drives me to make a difference in worker safety and health.
EHS: What direction do you see the agency taking under the new administration?
Walters: Obviously, the new administration is just getting started. We will not be able to fully assess their direction until a new OSHA assistant secretary is appointed. In the 25 years that I worked with OSHA, I had the opportunity to work with both Republican and Democratic administrations. While each group has brought with them different philosophies and identified different OSHA programs to highlight, both have committed to providing a balanced approach toward worker safety and health, including robust compliance assistance and enforcement programs.
EHS: As EHS professionals, how do you believe my readers and their employers will be impacted?
Walters: With every new administration comes new philosophies and new OSHA programs that they choose to emphasize. These are issues that leaders at the highest levels of OSHA discuss with the general public and communicate internally to OSHA staff.
At the area office level, a majority of the work does not change when an administration changes. So, where the rubber meets the road in OSHA area offices across the country, inspections are still being conducted, fatalities are still being investigated, complaints are still being filed, severe injuries are still being reported and whistleblower complaints are still being investigated. In my experience, the final outcome of each individual enforcement case is determined by the specific facts. I have personally been involved in the issuance of egregious cases and criminal prosecutions under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The enforcement side of OSHA will always be there. The agency will still have a significant presence in the workplace, so it is important for employers to maintain a positive working relationship with local career OSHA representatives.
At Safety Controls Technology, we stress that taking a proactive approach to safety is the best way to handle workplace safety issues – both for the well-being of employees and for the company’s bottom line. Ensuring employees have the most up-to-date education and training, like the kind we offer at SCT, is one of the most effective ways to keep employees safe and productive.
EHS: Do you foresee the agency working on new regulations (once/if the ban on new regulations is lifted by the administration) and if so, which ones?
Walters: With the change in administration, new regulatory priorities will not be known until a new OSHA assistant secretary is appointed. I would hope that the incoming political staff would see the value in moving forward on a regulation addressing safety and health management systems. I have worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations that have recognized the importance of these systems in the workplace. This has been seen in the development and distribution of new safety and health program guidelines, along with an emphasis on the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program.
The vast majority of OSHA regulations are focused on addressing only one specific hazard. However, it is impossible for any agency to write a separate regulation that addresses every hazard in every workplace in the country. Development of a safety and health management system regulation would give employers the tools they need to internally address the hazards specific to their workplace.
EHS: If new regulations are not a possibility, what will be the focus of OSHA for the next four years, in your opinion?
Walters: Writing new regulations is only one piece of the puzzle for OSHA. There are many other programs that OSHA has in its toolbox to help ensure safe and healthful workplaces. Of course, everyone knows about OSHA’s role of enforcing safety and health regulations. However, the agency also has other compliance assistance tools that it utilizes.
OSHA often uses partnerships and alliances with employers and other organizations to promote safety on the job. They also have VPP, which recognizes those employers with outstanding safety and health management systems. This program is for the “best of the best.”
Even if new regulations are not on the horizon, the agency often produces guidance documents and other tools to help employers come into compliance. Additionally, OSHA administers numerous training programs to help educate employers and workers on various safety and health topics. Some of those mechanisms include the OSHA Training Institute, Outreach Training Program, OTI Educations Centers and Susan Harwood Grant Program. While, we will not know the specific focus of the new administration until a new OSHA assistant secretary is appointed, there will undoubtedly be some mixture of compliance assistance and enforcement activity. We will see exactly what that balance looks like over the next few months.
EHS: How can/should employers can interface with the agency to create and support safer work environments?
Walters: Often times in the media, we hear about the horror stories where OSHA issues citations with very high penalties. In most of these cases, OSHA believes that the employer has shown a disregard or plain indifference toward worker safety. Unfortunately, this creates an atmosphere in which employers are afraid to interface with the agency.
There are many opportunities for employers and OSHA to work together in a positive manner to support safe work environments. However, employers need to make sure that the safety and health efforts in their facility are up to par before seeking these relationships with OSHA. The staff in OSHA area offices are primarily focused on enforcement efforts and do not have the resources to serve as consultants for individual companies.
EHS: If an employer is cited by OSHA, what advice do you have for the company?
Walters: First, do not wait until after you have been cited by OSHA or after an incident to think about worker safety and health. [If] you are a small- or medium-size company with limited safety and health capabilities on staff or a large company that lacks the knowledge to address very complex issues, [there are consultants that can] to help your company be proactive about protecting workers and avoiding costly OSHA citations.
The post-OSHA inspection process can be very intimidating. Employers should be aware that every sustained violation creates a history with OSHA and this information is reviewed by the agency during future inspections. Additionally, this history can be used to significantly increase penalty amounts associated with violations down the road. While working with OSHA, I was involved in the litigation and settlement of thousands of OSHA cases.
EHS: Can you describe your new role at SCT?
Walters: I joined Safety Controls Technology in January of 2017. SCT is a woman-owned business enterprise delivering comprehensive consulting services since 1999. Some of the services we provide include consultation, inspections, written programs, submittal packages, expert witness testimony, biological, environmental and occupational monitoring, safety training, and representation for clients with regulatory agencies.
As vice president of Safety Engineering Services for SCT, I assist in managing a staff of 25 employees with various job descriptions related to safety consultation, industrial hygiene and occupational health services in workplaces throughout the country. SCT was recognized as one of 2016’s fastest growing companies in Northeast Ohio by Weatherhead 100 and recently opened an office in Chicago, under my direction.
EHS: How has the transition been for you?
Walters: My transition from OSHA to SCT has been fantastic. I received a warm welcome from everyone at SCT and immediately felt like I was part of the team. In my role with OSHA as the regional administrator in Chicago, I had the privilege of working closely with SCT’s General Manager Joe Ventura and Senior Vice President Rob Medlock on a number of projects. I had also worked with Medlock when he was the area director of the OSHA office in Cleveland, Ohio. This led to my choice to continue the next chapter of my career with SCT because they are engaged in the safety and health field for all of the right reasons. At the end of the day, I wanted to work with people that I can trust – people that I know are doing everything they can to promote safety and health in the workplace.
EHS: What are you most looking forward to in your professional life in the private sector?
Walters: My time with OSHA was a great experience that I will always treasure. It gave me the opportunity to work with a fantastic group of people that I will truly miss interacting with on a daily basis. Agency staff care deeply about the mission and work very hard, with a limited amount of resources, to do everything they can to protect the working men and women of this nation.
I am really looking forward to working with employers, associations and workers through more collaborative relationships. In the private sector, I will no longer be wearing the OSHA enforcement hat, which sometimes created an adversarial tone. In the short time that I have been with SCT, I have already experienced situations in which employers openly shared information about their operations in an effort to provide the safest workplace possible. This open line of communication does not always take place with OSHA representatives. It is very refreshing to see these perspectives through a different lens. While working for OSHA, my goal was to help employers protect workers. With SCT, I still have that same goal, but a different set of tools.