Sandy Says: How Effective Is OSHA Enforcement?

Feb. 12, 2014
The debate over whether or not OSHA enforcement is effective in creating safer workplaces continues, even here in my office.

I had an interesting conversation this week with Steve Minter, my predecessor as editor-in-chief here at EHS Today. Steve moved on to become editor of IndustryWeek, which provides analysis, insights and tools for manufacturing executives. He now has a unique perspective on workplace safety and health, seeing it as he does through the perspective of CEOs, COOs and CFOs.

Steve believes that management programs like Six Sigma and Lean have done nearly as much for workplace safety as actions taken by OSHA. Workplace injuries and illnesses and property damage are expensive, Steve pointed out, and smart CEOs see them as wasteful. With small profit margins and a highly competitive market, waste in any form is frowned upon. Companies that focus on the quality of production and quality of products necessarily include worker safety in the discussion.

As things now stand, Steve might have a point.

Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor-OSHA, as well as his predecessors, have gone on record many times saying that it would take 100 years for OSHA to inspect every workplace in the United States one time.

So, as part of its strategy, OSHA offers compliance advice and assistance to employers and tracks injury and illness rates to determine trends and to uncover companies with a history of unsafe working conditions. Since it can’t visit every workplace, the agency targets enforcement through National Emphasis Programs in specific industries like primary metals, chemical facilities and nursing homes, and through the Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which “concentrates resources on inspecting employers who have demonstrated indifference to their OSH Act obligations by willful, repeated or failure-to-abate violations.”

The discussion between Steve and I was triggered by the explosion at the International Nutrition animal-feed processing plant in Omaha, Neb., that killed two workers and injured 10 others on Jan. 20.  That facility was last inspected by OSHA in November 2011 and issued six citations for serious violations. OSHA cited the plant for violations involving medical services and first aid; material storage; machine guarding; compressed air; and electrical wiring. Through an informal settlement with the agency, International Nutrition reduced the proposed OSHA fines from $19,600 to $10,430.

So, this particular facility was one of the relatively few in 2011 that the agency inspected. And two years later, the building blew up; so how impactful was that inspection? Were the violations abated or not? Did the violations contribute to the conditions that led to the explosion? I could be wrong, but I doubt OSHA inspectors circled back around with that employer to re-inspect the facility and ensure that any violations had been corrected.

And then there are corporations like BP, which was fined $21 million for alleged OSHA violations at its Texas City, Texas, refinery where an explosion killed 15 workers and injured 180 others in 2005 and then issued an additional $87.4 million in fines in 2009 for failure to correct those hazards. Flip ahead to 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon explosion and ensuing environmental disaster occurred, triggering billions of dollars in fines and settlements with multiple federal and state agencies. 

Cheryl MacKenzie, an investigator with the Chemical Safety Board, noted an “eerie resemblance” between the Texas City incident and Deepwater Horizon explosion, saying, “The emphasis on personal injury and lost work-time data obscures the bigger picture: that companies need to develop indicators that give them realistic information about their potential for catastrophic accidents. … How safety is measured and managed is at the very core of accident prevention.”

So, what does this tell us about the efficacy of OSHA enforcement?

I don’t think the failure lies with the agency or its efforts to improve workplace safety. It think the failure lies within us, in some corporate cultures that promote productivity over worker health and have created an environment where workers believe that if they speak up about unsafe conditions, they will lose their jobs.

Hindsight is 20/20, but we don’t always get a second chance to do the right thing.

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