Cintas Death Calls into Question OSHA Enforcement

April 24, 2008
House lawmakers and several key witnesses at an April 23 House Workforce Subcommittee hearing emphasized the need for OSHA to strengthen its enforcement efforts, conduct corporate-wide investigations and mitigate hazards so large, multiple-facility corporations like Cintas Corp. are held accountable for the safety of their workers.

The death of Eleazar Torres Gomez, a Cintas employee who fell from a conveyor belt into an industrial dryer at the company's Tulsa, Okla., facility in March 2007, prompted Congressional leaders like Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., to deem the incident representative of how OSHA's lack of enforcement and oversight of workplace safety and health conditions contributes to such tragedies.

“We want to know if there are ways to enable OSHA to more effectively hold large employers accountable for compliance throughout their operations and ensure broader abatement of hazards,” said Woolsey, who chairs the workforce committee.

Cintas, which has 34,000 employees in hundreds of locations, faces a proposed OSHA fine of $2.8 million – the largest service-sector fine in the history of the agency – followed by a $117,500 penalty against a Cintas facility in Columbus, Ohio, and a $196,000 citation at the company's Mobile, Ala., plant.

But several experts at the hearing claimed that OSHA isn't doing enough. Randy Rabinowitz, a labor union lawyer based in Washington state, suggested that Congress require the agency to conduct corporate-wide investigations when deemed necessary. She stated that OSHA's Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP) “looks good on paper,” but is too limited and leaves OSHA with too much discretion to follow through with investigations.

“The agency doesn't have to do anything with it,” she said. “And it's just unfortunate, because many times, it's just an empty promise.” She also added that the agency should try to leverages its resources to identify patterns of misconduct and demand abatement of company-wide problems.

Implementing Safety and Health Management Systems

According to ORC Worldwide Senior Vice President Frank White, OSHA currently has sound procedures in place, but he questions whether those procedures are functioning correctly. White added that the agency faces longstanding institutional impediments to adopting more corporate-wide orientation such as the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, which grounds its entire enforcement regime on individual workplaces and not on whole corporate entities.

He also stressed the importance for companies to adopt safety and health management systems. A comprehensive management system, he said, is effective in eliminating injuries and illnesses “through a continuous process of identifying, assessing and reducing risks.”

After the hearing, White told that OSHA can do a better job in promoting and advocating the value of safety and health management systems. He noted the agency attempts this via compliance initiatives such as its Voluntary Protection Program, but isn't always successful as these programs only focus on top-tier safety companies and not on others that aren't doing as well safety-wise.

Emphasizing that good management systems eliminates all risks, not just those covered by OSHA standards, White said he encourages the agency to look for new ways to promote and advocate these systems. He pointed out that OSHA regional and area offices could create more awareness by referring companies to the 2005 ANSI Z10 American National Standard for Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems, which includes an up-to-date and complete description of these systems. He also suggested that OSHA includes a link to the standard on its Web site and promote safety and health managements systems in its e-newsletters as a critical tool to reducing risk and achieving compliance.

“In the long term, nothing will have a more significant impact on the reduction of risks, injuries and illnesses, as well as improved compliance, than the widespread adoption of these systems – OSHA can play a critical role in this effort,” White said.

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