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Veteran safety pros react to the "new sheriff in town" (4/29)

April 29, 2010
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“It's back to Eula Bingham,” says one consultant, who is quoted anonymously here because he corresponded with ISHN in a private email exchange. “Confrontation city all over again. ‘Don't come in here complaining about what I do — this is the Department of Labor, not business,’ she is reported to have said.

“Labor thinks that is cool to have OSHA sticking it to business. They love to cite the extreme issues, but their meaning is a very broad brush — it is intended to mean all business as it did under Jimmy Carter's OSHA (with Dr. Eula Bingham in charge). So, eventually, the safety and health committed-businesses will have all they can stand and OSHA will once again become the image of an out of control/out of touch government as it was in the late 1970s. That will be consistent with the style of government already established over the last year.

”I, for one, don't think that helps the image of safety at all. It does not help the value add of the safety and health profession. I do recognize that there are significant segments of this profession that have a very different view — they yearn for OSHA to go after their employers and all employers who, they have identified, are the ‘problem’ in safety and health.”

Says a second safety and health pro, whose career also spans the 40-year history of OSHA (and who also privately corresponded with ISHN):

“I’m sure the Bush administration was pandering to the business community, afraid to alienate or upset these constituents, which is disgusting to me personally. Consequently, Bush gave impetus to the nation’s zealots and supporters. His administration should be ashamed. OSHA is first and foremost a regulatory agency tasked to increase, promote and preserve worker safety and health.

“It seems that Solis, Michaels and Barab could fall into the same trap that Bush’s appointees did. That is, for every action, there is an (approximately) equal and opposite reaction. Bush took the agency way too far from its charter and positioned it and as a do nothing agency – relatively speaking. The result: A “new sheriff in town” and a wild swing in the opposite direction to counter the perception of the last eight years of inactivity and exclusion of labor and labor’s feelings and needs.

“I am personally in support of many of Michaels’ objectives – safety management direction, ergonomics, chemical health standards update, stronger enforcement, and penalizing the ‘bad’ actors more severely, including the possibility of incarceration for egregious mismanagement.

“It is interesting; I’ve worked for four corporations, two of them world-wide, and consulted with several hundred corporations and public entities in the last 38 years. During that time, I have never known of an organization to intentionally make decisions that would result in harm to workers. I have read about companies that did make those types of decisions, but to paint industry with the same broad brush is a disservice to the millions and millions of workers, both management and labor across this great nation.

“An unfortunate reality is that (and this is my personal coaching for management and labor) safety is a people-oriented process. People make many decisions each day. The vast majority are good decisions. Some decisions (management or labor) might increase risk, but result in no injurious event. And, some do result in an injury. Yet, it is people that are the key part of the equation. Many people could contribute to increased or decreased risk: those who design the machines, order them, inspect them, maintain them, or operate them, or supervise the operation or provide safety consultation. So, a focus on complying with rules/regulations (the sheriff approach) will ultimately be only marginally effective.

“As we have a hierarchy of choices to eliminate/reduce risk (starting with hazard elimination and ending with the use of PPE), I believe there is a hierarchy for establishing safe operations. It starts with the correct leadership mindset and actions – all leaders top to bottom. Second is worker knowledge, expertise and execution in operations and safety. Third is the labor representation mindset being non-adversarial, which goes for management as well. Fourth, the design of systems and processes must be effective, efficient and safe. Fifth is the ability at all levels of management to understand and continuously apply contemporary leadership principles that result in trusting labor/management relationships – with workers and across functional lines. Sixth is building labor/management collaborative teams to identify, discuss and resolve problems, including safety problems, which arise in a dynamic organization. Lastly, supervisors and managers must be consistently good at applying corrective coaching/action to help people embrace safe or new ways of operating – which could include disciplinary measures up to and including termination. Notice that discipline is the last resort.

“The labor-related mindset (of current Department of Labor officials) most likely will focus on the threat of discipline and penalties, ignoring the realities of how effective businesses and committed people operate. The pendulum thus has been given momentum to continue its swing.”

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