OSHA Listens: Panel Discusses OSHA Enforcement, Outreach

March 4, 2010
As part of its March 4 “OSHA Listens” public meeting, OSHA Administrator David Michaels and other agency personnel met with stakeholders from a wide range of groups to discuss key issues facing the agency.

OSHA invited input on topics including how the agency can encourage the efforts of employers and workers to address workplace hazards; the most important emerging workplace health and safety issues; updating the Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs); and more. The public meeting featured 13 panels and 45 stakeholders over the course of the day.

The second panel, which included Marc Freedman, director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Frank White, senior vice president of ORC; Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Association of General Contractors; and Keith Smith, director of employment and labor policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, discussed enforcement versus compliance and how OSHA can improve its performance.

Freedman: New Sheriff Isn’t Enough

Freedman pointed out that employers have listened to the messages Michaels, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab have conveyed since taking on their roles within the administration. These messages, he said, consistently return to the fact that there is “a new sheriff in town” and indicate that compliance assistance is not going to be a focal point in OSHA.

This also was made clear in the agency’s budget request, which proposed transitioning 35 OSHA inspectors from compliance to enforcement activities and hiring 25 additional enforcement inspectors. Freedman said, however, that OSHA’s message should focus on safety and culture – not trying to scare employers.

“Short of placing an inspector in every workplace, there will never be adequate resources for enforcement,” he said, just as it’s not possible to put a traffic cop on every corner to ensure everyone drives safely. “The goal should be to find ways to expand this level of support and get it in more employers’ hands, and not to redirect resources to enforcement first.”

“There is more to improving workplace safety than merely being a new sheriff in town,” Freedman said.

White, meanwhile, advocated for OSHA to shift its focus from a compliance-first approach to safety and health to a broader risk assessment approach.

Outreach

Freedman and White both stressed that OSHA must provide more guidance and information on the standards it releases to help employers remain in compliance. According to Freedman, outreach does not lie in OSHA simply publishing a standard, but how the agency communicates the standard’s requirements and how the employer can achieve them. Freedman said he’d like to see OSHA put out compliance guides as a matter of routine.

“It’s the effort behind [the standard] that’s going to make the difference,” he said. “Just putting it out there isn’t outreach.”

“Employers will accept standards more often if they understand them better and have enough lead time to comply,” White added. “Standards are important and valuable, but you need that educational feature to make them work well.”

Safety Apostles

“We need to understand that for many employers, especially small ones, OSHA is not the main driver in workplace safety,” Freedman said.

Sandherr agreed, saying that employers typically don’t create safety policies because they fear OSHA fines. Instead, they create safe workplaces for moral reasons, because it’s good for business, because it helps them remain competitive and because it improves employee morale.

Sandherr also expressed concern over the future of the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) and suggested that OSHA is turning its back on key allies in the battle of promoting a culture of safety in the American workplace.

“For safety to continue to improve, we need more safety apostles, not less,” he said.

The OSHA Listens panel discussions are shown in a live March 4 webcast at http://www.dol.gov/dol/media/webcast/live from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST.

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