OSHA's Evolving Role in Promoting Occupational Safety and Health

Nov. 1, 2008
The world was a much different place when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created more than 35 years ago.

Changing populations, a workforce that has doubled in size, the development of new industries and technologies and unexpected national events have all had an impact on the way OSHA fulfills its mandate to assure the safety and health of America's working men and women. During the 2 and a half years that I have had the privilege to serve as the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, my job has been to ensure that the agency meets these challenges in the most effective way possible.

Our mission is to assure safe and healthful conditions on the job for working men and women. As the OSH Act of 1970 makes clear, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful environment for their employees. In the past, this meant that OSHA's activities focused on establishing workplace standards and making sure that employers were living up to their responsibilities by issuing appropriate citations and imposing fines when they did not.

Enforcing standards is something that we continue to take seriously. Since 2001, OSHA's strong enforcement program has proposed more than three-quarters of a billion dollars in penalties and made 64 referrals for criminal prosecution to the Department of Justice, which represents more than 30 percent of all criminal referrals in the history of OSHA.

OSHA takes a balanced approach of fair enforcement, proactive education and compliance assistance, targeted outreach to small businesses and effective partnerships and cooperative programs. Through this coordinated effort, we are better able to help employers and employees reduce fatalities and injuries in America's workplaces.

The recent release of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' annual data on occupational fatalities is proof that this approach has been a success. In addition to a decline in the overall number of fatalities, the 2007 rate of 3.7 fatalities per 100,000 workers is the lowest in recorded OSHA history.

Part of this success is a result of the OSHA Web site (http://www.osha.gov). It allows employers and employees to access OSHA standards, Safety and Health Information Bulletins, eTools, QuickCards and fact sheets, guidance documents and other resources, including many in Spanish. It also offers information on the many cooperative programs that encourage businesses to work directly with OSHA to achieve outstanding employee safety records and provide accurate and practical safety and health advice to others in their industries.


OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) promote effective worksite-based safety and health. In VPP, management, labor and OSHA establish cooperative relationships at workplaces that have implemented a comprehensive safety and health management system. Admission into VPP is OSHA's official recognition of the outstanding efforts of employers and employees who have achieved exemplary workplace occupational safety and health.

In July of this year, I attended a ceremony recognizing a Wyeth Pharmaceutical complex in New York's Hudson Valley as OSHA's 2,000th VPP site. This event was a milestone for our agency and a source of pride for everyone working at this facility. Mike McDermott, vice president of site operations for this Wyeth plant, explained, “When we applied for VPP, we set our sights on being the best in the industry. We worked aggressively to make improvements in our safety programs, communication and training, and we are delighted to be recognized as a VPP Star worksite.”

Another way that OSHA is collaborating with employers to improve workplace safety is through our Alliance Program. OSHA partners with groups committed to safety and health, including businesses, trade or professional organizations, unions and educational institutions, to leverage resources and expertise to develop compliance assistance tools and resources and share information and best practices with employers and employees to help prevent injuries, illnesses and fatalities in the workplace. Products created through the Alliance Program, all of which are available on OSHA's Web site, include interactive, web-based occupational safety and health training tools and Safety and Health Topics pages.

OSHA and our alliance partners work closely together to improve the way we communicate important safety and health information to employers and employees. At the beginning of this year, I addressed OSHA's second Construction Roundtable in Washington, D.C., which was attended by representatives from 13 construction-related alliances. We discussed OSHA's development of construction-related safety and health outreach products and initiatives. Members of organizations including the National Association of Home Builders, the National Construction Safety Executives and the American Society of Safety Engineers reviewed materials developed for employers and employees by the Roundtable's Fall Protection and Design for Safety Workgroups.

The On-Site Consultation Service is another example of OSHA's cooperative programs that helps employers improve their health and safety performance. Specifically designed for small and medium-sized businesses, this free and confidential service, available in every state, offers professionals who can advise employers how to eliminate worksite hazards and improve their occupational safety and health management systems.

Brent Tartamella, general manager of the Westmoor Club on Nantucket Island, learned about this program through an OSHA alliance member, the Club Manager's Association of America. He contacted his area OSHA On-Site Consultation office for advice about ways to deal with safety and health issues faced by his employees working as groundskeepers, kitchen staff and maintenance crews. After meeting with OSHA's consultant, Tartamella said, “The On-site Consultation staff's attention to detail helped us correct potential hazards that we might have overlooked.” The fact that the club has experienced no workplace fatalities or recordable injuries or illnesses since its first consultation visit in October 2005 is proof of this program's success.


In many states, employers may participate in the OSHA Consultation SHARP (Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program). This program provides incentives and support to smaller, high-hazard employers to develop, implement and continuously improve effective safety and health programs at their worksites.

The program recognizes employers who meet a number of requirements that include receiving a comprehensive safety and health consultation, correcting all workplace safety and health hazards and adopting and implementing effective safety and health management systems. Employers who meet the specific program requirements earn many benefits, including being exempt from scheduled OSHA inspections for 1 year.

From 2001-2006, SHARP participant Anthony Forest Products in El Dorado, Ariz. saved over $1 million in workers' compensation payments and other costs by investing $50,000 in safety and health. Just as important, as Kelly Olivier, environmental, health and safety coordinator for Anthony Forest Products, explained, “Becoming a member of SHARP has enhanced our company's safety program by involving employees and reducing incidents, which has strengthened already good relationships between management and our employees.”

OSHA also works to strengthen these relationships through our Strategic Partnership Program. Through this program, OSHA and its partners agree to work cooperatively to address critical safety and health issues. In a partnership, OSHA enters into an extended, voluntary, cooperative relationship with groups of employers, employees and employee representatives (sometimes including other stakeholders, and sometimes involving only one employer) to encourage, assist and recognize their efforts to eliminate serious hazards and achieve a high level of employee safety and health.

Information on all these cooperative programs is available on OSHA's Web site, which provides employers and employees with all the resources they need to understand how to comply with OSHA's standards and remain healthy and safe on the job.


While we have focused our efforts on reaching out to traditional workplaces such as factories, warehouses and construction sites, events in the last 7 years also have prompted OSHA to expand its responsibilities to areas that the creators of our agency probably never envisioned. The loss of life and destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, the response to the anthrax attacks using the U.S. Postal system, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, expanded OSHA's role by adding the dimension of emergency preparedness and response. Among the many lessons learned from our nation's response to these emergencies, we have come to understand how everyone - at all levels of private industry and local and national government - needs to develop plans for emergency preparedness and response appropriate for their workplace.

Under the new National Response Framework (NRF) for Emergency Preparedness, OSHA has primary responsibility for the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex. The Emergency Preparedness Response page of OSHA's Web site (http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/emergencypreparedness/index.html) provides links to resources that can help organizations, including businesses, plan for emergencies and protect employees when disaster strikes.

To recognize and institutionalize the efforts of OSHA personnel who already are dedicated to emergency response and to more efficiently focus future activities in this area, we recently changed the name of OSHA's Directorate of Science, Technology and Medicine to the Directorate of Technical Support and Emergency Management (DTSEM). The new name better reflects DTSEM's role within OSHA - to provide employers with information on how to manage catastrophic threats to the safety and health of their employees.

As our response to these recent national emergencies shows, OSHA's efforts to provide for the changing needs of America's workforce includes continually looking for ways to improve the agency, so that OSHA employees continue to assure safe and healthful working conditions for American men and women.

At a leadership conference held in April 2008, we embraced the agency's mission and agreed on our shared vision and values. This was an integral step forward for OSHA as it guides our employees in fulfilling this mission today and in the years ahead.

We enthusiastically carry these principles forward as our agency continues to meet the challenges of the next decade. The strategic alignment of OSHA's mission, values and vision will serve as a guidepost in our daily efforts to assure the safety and health of our nation's workforce. Helping us to extend the agency's reach to more employers and employees across our nation, the businesses participating in cooperative programs such as VPP, alliances and strategic partnerships will be essential in modeling safety and health excellence to others in their industries.


Part of our vision includes encouraging every workplace in America to establish an effective safety and health management system (SHMS), which involves every level of an organization, to instill a culture that reduces employee injuries and illnesses while improving a worksite's financial bottom line. To meet the changing requirements of new technologies and industries and the hazards they can create, OSHA is in the process of updating its 1989 voluntary SHMS guidance document. In addition, the OSHA Web site currently offers a SHMS eTool at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/safetyhealth/index.html that demonstrates how to develop a safety and health management system to meet the needs of any business.

Despite the ways in which working conditions have changed since OSHA was created more than 30 years ago, and the unexpected threats to employee safety that have come about since then, OSHA's commitment to its mission, values and vision keeps this agency a vital part of daily work life in America. Although I am proud of our continuing successes in reducing the number of injuries, illnesses and fatalities in our nation's workplaces, our job will not be done until we reduce them all the way to zero.

From now until 2020 and beyond, OSHA's vision will remain focused on our ultimate goal of protecting America's working men and women so that, at the end of every working day, they may return home to family and friends, safe and healthy.

Edwin G. Foulke Jr. is assistant secretary of labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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