Before launching into an overview of OSHA’s ongoing challenges and initiatives, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, opened his Oct. 23 National Safety Council (NSC) occupational keynote speech by taking a moment to congratulate NSC for promoting safety throughout the last century.
“When we think of what the workplace was like 100 years ago, it’s no exaggeration to say there was carnage in the workplace,” Michaels said. “These 100 years have been very important in protecting American workers.”
Even so, Michaels added “we’re not there yet” in ensuring all workers go home safely at the end of every shift. The reality is that about 4,000 workers die every year from job-related injuries, and as many as 50,000 more die from illnesses that could have been impacted from occupational exposures, he said.
Shifting the Safety Curve
“I think employer attitude toward safety and health can be viewed as a bell curve,” Michaels told NSC attendees. The most negligent, apathetic employers would be represented on the left side of the bell curve while the most attentive, proactive employers would appear on the right, with the bell curve rising in the center to represent the majority of U.S. employers who fall somewhere in the middle.
“My objective and OSHA’s objective is to move this curve. The bad ones improve, the mediocre ones get better and the good ones get to the best point,” Michaels said. “That’s our challenge.”
Implementing safety and health management systems and developing a culture of safety in American workplaces can help shift that bell curve toward the side of conscientious, safety-focused employers, he said.
Michaels also highlighted OSHA’s recent actions, such as updating the hazard communication standard to align with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS); sending letters of notice to grain handling facilities, which may have helped reduce the number of grain entrapments 47 percent from 2010 to 2011; promoting the agency’s heat stress “Water, Rest and Shade” campaign; and efforts to protect residential construction workers from fall risks.
“The bottom line is not only do we try to protect workers, but we try to protect employers. The employers in this room are trying to do the right thing; we don’t think they should be undercut by the employers who don’t,” Michaels said. “OSHA works to level the playing field to make sure everyone plays by the same rules.”
He cited an independent study showing that random OSHA safety inspections led to a 9.4 percent decrease in injury rates and reduced workers’ comp costs. In fact, no negative effect on employment, total earnings, sales or credit worthiness was found as a result of these inspections.
“I tell people: OSHA doesn’t kill jobs. OSHA saves jobs,” Michaels said.
The Incentives Question
OSHA recently issued a memo warning employers against using incentive programs that could discourage workers from reporting injuries or illnesses, a move Michaels acknowledged is “a little controversial.”
According to Michaels, injury-rate-based incentive programs are prevalent across American industry and are designed to reward workers – with anything from a party to bonuses or gifts of value – for working a certain period of time without injury. He explained that OSHA will investigate if workers are discouraged from reporting injuries.
“It can lead to failure to report,” Michaels said of these types of incentive programs. “But also, how does it work theoretically? You can successfully incentivize certain behaviors, but there’s no evidence to incentivize a lack of behavior. We think this is a big issue and we’d love your thoughts on this.”
Preventing Falls in Construction
Michaels was joined on stage by Dr. John Howard, director of NIOSH, who used his time to stress the need to examine fall fatalities in the construction industry. NIOSH and OSHA recently partnered to launch a national, evidence-based construction fall prevention campaign to help protect construction workers from falls.
“Our No. 1 goal in construction sector is reduce fatalities and serious injuries from falls to lower levels,” Howard said. “It’s a serious issue and one that all of us can do something about.”
As Michaels pointed out, about 750 fatalities occur every year in the construction industry, many of which involve falls. According to Howard, falls from roofs account for about one-third of construction fall fatalities, with the other two-thirds attributed to ladders and scaffolds.
“You don’t have to fall from great heights to die from a construction fall,” Howard said. “About two-thirds of construction falls are 20 feet or less. How you fall determines whether you will die from a fall.”
“Please get involved,” Howard told NSC attendees, “and we can eliminate falls.”