NSC: OSHA Then and Now

Nov. 7, 2006
Workplace safety has come a long way since OSHA came into existence in 1971, but current OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. told attendees of the 94th National Safety Council Congress and Expo in San Diego that “there’s more work to be done.”

Since OSHA's inception 35 years ago, workplace fatalities nationwide have declined by 60 percent, and injuries and illnesses have declined by 40 percent, Foulke noted. He also trumpeted the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, which showed a drop in the injury and illness rate in 2005.

"While we've made progress, and I think we're clearly going in the right direction, there's more work to be done," Foulke said. "I know each and every one of you agree with me when I say even one fatality in any workplace is one too many."

The 35th anniversary of OSHA has been a time of reflection for OSHA, Foulke told safety congress attendees.

OSHA's mission -- to ensure that "American working men and women return home each and every day to their families and friends, safe and sound" -- is the same, Foulke said. But technology and an emphasis on outreach, training and partnerships have changed the ways OSHA aims to achieve that mission.

The agency anticipates that its Web site -- which Foulke called a "tremendous resource" -- will reach 1 billion hits by the end of this year.

Foulke also spoke quite a bit about his fondness for strategic alliances and partnerships, asserting that they "extend OSHA's reach by engaging the resources of other organizations and business, especially their human resources."

"I recognize that the vast majority of business owners want to protect their employees," Foulke said. "Many times they just need some help with the process and that's why OSHA is extending a helping hand throughout wide range of tools and services. We want to see employers and employees succeed while staying safe on the job."

Foulke also promised -- as he has at many of his public appearances -- tough enforcement for businesses that view fatalities and OSHA fines as the cost of doing business. He explained that OSHA should be viewed as the neighborhood police officer: always available to help but never forgetting his or her obligation to enforce the law.

No Longer the Cowboy

Foulke believes that OSHA's image has improved since the agency was created in 1971, when it was depicted in a popular cartoon as a cowboy wearing a helmet, goggles and a seat belt and riding a horse equipped with training wheels to prevent it from tipping over.

Even so, some of those old perceptions still exist. Foulke explained that he recently visited with the owner of a small business, who told Foulke that he was afraid to explore OSHA’s Web site for fear that the Web site visit would generate an inspection.

"There are still too many people who fear us for the wrong reasons," Foulke said.

Foulke emphasized that safety professionals need to work together to get the message of workplace safety and health to such employers, adding that "until [recalcitrant employers] embrace the message of safety and health, our job is not done."

There's a strong business case to be made for embracing that message. OSHA over the past 35 years has learned that companies that implement a comprehensive safety and health management system can expect to reduce their injury and illness rates by 20 percent or more, Foulke said.

The agency also estimates that companies that have participated in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program since 1982 have saved more than $1 billion.

"When I meet with business owners, I make it a point to remind them that at a time when companies are making difficult decisions about profits and losses and keeping jobs here in America, choosing to improve safety and health is not just their legal responsibility, but I personally believe it's their moral responsibility," Foulke said. "You know what? It also makes good business sense."

OSHA's Priorities

Looking ahead, OSHA will focus on improving safety in the construction industry and for small businesses, Spanish-speaking workers and young employers, Foulke said.

Other emphases will include reducing injuries and fatalities resulting from on-the-job traffic collisions and providing more workplace training on first aid, CPR and automated external defibrillators, he said.

Foulke also said he is optimistic that OSHA's alliance with the National Safety Council will help the agency address other important workplace safety and health issues. For example, he said the agency and the National Safety Council plan to develop case studies to illustrate the business value of safety.

"Working together, we can help America be stronger and safer," Foulke concluded.

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