Michaels: Focus on Workplace Safety Culture, Not Enforcement

July 30, 2009
In a February 2009 New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) publication, David Michaels stressed that the Obama administration should work to change workplace safety culture instead of primarily focusing on enforcement. As Obama’s choice to become the next OSHA administrator, Michaels soon may be in the position to act on some of his objectives.

Can OSHA be Fixed?” was a special NYCOSH newsletter produced for the incoming Obama administration. It included articles from 34 labor, government, public health and workers’ rights organizations contributors, including Michaels’ contribution, “Bold Campaign Needed to Change Workplace Culture.”

In the article, Michaels outlined the shortcomings he saw in OSHA added that increasing the amount of inspections would not significantly help the agency move forward in its mission.

“OSHA is constrained by both budget and legal authority,” Michaels wrote. “The ratio of workplaces to inspectors is more than twice what it was when OSHA began. Most OSHA health standards are ancient and inadequate. The OSHA standard setting process is broken and OSHA lacks the resources or political clout to issue an adequate set of new standards. Many injuries and fatalities occur in the absence of violations of existing standards. Consequently, changes in the number and type of inspections are unlikely to have more than a minor impact on OSHA’s mission: reducing injury and illness rates.”

Michaels outlined four new objectives for OSHA:

  1. Issue a workplace injury and illness prevention program rule.
  2. Increase workplace health and safety capacity (through training grants).
  3. Develop s new electronic recordkeeping and reporting system.
  4. Initiate a campaign to change the way the nation thinks about workplace safety.

“A bold campaign to change the workplace culture of safety should be initiated. This can’t happen unless workers are trained and given the opportunity to play an active role,” Michaels wrote.

A Different Direction

When Tom Cecich, CSP, CIH, American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) vice president for the Council of Professional Affairs, spoke to EHS Today shortly after Obama announced his nomination intentions, he referenced this article and said he was encouraged by Michaels’ focus on changing the safety culture in workplaces.

“As safety professionals, we’ve been saying culture is one of the real cornerstones to ultimately moving forward,” Cecich said. “The goal should be reducing injuries and illnesses. The goal shouldn’t be the number of inspections, number of penalties.”

Safety professionals have been stressing the importance of changing the safety culture for a long time, Cecich explained. “I think most people think OSHA is in general pretty much stalemated between the interests of business and the interests of labor and that we really do need to break out in a different direction,” he said.

“A successful OSHA will result in fewer injuries and illnesses. And that’s essentially what [Michaels] says in this article. He lays out his view of how to go about doing that,” added Cecich. “His steps for doing that are a very reasonable approach, and a different direction that we’ve seen from OSHA in the past. So if he’s truly able to lead in that direction, I’d say that there’s a chance to change the OSHA culture that’s been stalemated and stagnant for so long.”

Continuous Improvement

American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) President-elect Michael T. Brandt, DrPH, CIH, PMP, also discussed culture change in light of Michaels’ nomination in a recent interview with EHS Today.

“If you think about it, change will occur when each individual accepts their role and their accountability in the safety system – that’s management and workers working together to improve the workplace,” Brandt said. “Real change will only occur with a lasting cultural shift. And that means that workers have to accept their responsibility in following procedures and wearing protective equipment.”

When employees and management work together to create safe working conditions by making continuous improvements, Brandt added, change becomes possible. “Continuous improvement has shown over time [to] help create enduring solutions, because now we’re focusing on ways to solve problems together to improve the workplace,” he said.

Brandt added that AIHA will assist the new OSHA administrator to help further his agenda to protect worker health. “Without knowing what his agenda will be, it’s hard to say, but we will actively partner with OSHA in every appropriate way to help protect worker health,” said Brandt.

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