Charles in charge

May 11, 2000
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Six months into his new job, Charles Jeffress finds his plate full with issues and a couple of controversies. That's the way it is when you're running the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In early April, Industrial Safety & Hygiene News caught up with Jeffress at his office in the Department of Labor building in Washington for this wide-ranging, hour-long interview.

Your honeymoon ended rather quickly. Are you frustrated by the delay in implementing the Cooperative Compliance Program? The court has said it's reasonable to take a look at the plan before OSHA implements it. That's all that's been said so far. From the court's perspective, OSHA's been operating for 27 years one way; if they want to change the way they're operating, well, another few months delay isn't any big setback. To wait a few months before you start a new program isn't a terrible setback for the program. I don't take it as a terrible setback. Sure, I'm anxious to get going because I believe it's the right thing to do. But do I see it as something that gets me terribly frustrated? No. I don't see this as anything but a temporary delay. I believe we will win on this issue. The court will affirm [the CCP] is the right thing to do.

The perception exists today that OSHA is weak and muzzled by Congress; that it can't help safety and health people in industry drive their programs. Your comments? I think the political attacks are very real. These political attacks help give the impression, *Can OSHA really stick its neck out?* And the inspections did go down that one year when OSHA was reinventing itself and the government was shutting down. But, in fact, the budget for the organization has increased in each of the last two years. Our numbers of inspections again are increasing back up above 35,000, and the number of significant cases where we issue penalties $100,000 or more are also increasing. Beyond OSHA, there are more criminal prosecutions for people who are failing to abide by good safety and health practices than ever before. So while there continues to be a very difficult political attack for us to fend off, the actions of the agency in making inspections and issuing significant penalties and enforcing its rules continues. We do need to reinvent our standards process. This is an area which we need to work on.

Our readers over the years have not heard any comments from OSHA on the whole issue of behavioral safety. Behavioral training has really grown in popularity with our readers. Is OSHA going to set a standard at some point on behavioral safety? Since there's no research right now that can validate behavior-based safety approaches, we'd be hard pressed to proceed with standard activity. So, no, a behavior-based safety standard is not likely to be the direction we'll go. At the same time, my experience is that attitude and workplace culture regarding safety make a big difference in terms of whether there is a high rate of injuries or not. And that culture, that attitude, is frequently behavior based. Are people looking out for one another? Are people aware of when they're engaging in unsafe acts?

How have you learned about behavior-based safety?

What happens when a reader asks an inspector, "What do you think of behavior-based safety? Which one of the consultants should we use?" You want inspectors to help employers. How is OSHA going to answer those questions? We avoid endorsing a particular product, or a particular firm or organization's activities. With so many different approaches to behavior-based safety, we're unlikely to say, "We recommend this approach or that approach." But if I had an active safety and health program, I'd have my committee or team or whatever group is implementing the program talking about risk-based behavior.

Union people have many concerns about behavioral safety programs. They feel these programs focus too much on worker behaviors, and not enough on management behaviors. Your comments? I understand their concerns. If you as a manager throw up your hands and say, "We can't do anything about the 85 percent of accidents caused by unsafe acts," you've just given up your control over your workplace. As a manager you do have control over the way people perform their work. There is the ability to control unsafe acts, just like there's the ability to control the quality of work. So for folks to hide behind unsafe acts and blame employees for accidents is inappropriate. But, at the same time, for an employee to say behavioral safety is only about blaming the employee, I think that is unfair as well. We all need to be aware of the effects that our actions have on others. We all need to be aware of when we're engaging in risks unintentionally. A lot of behavioral safety is based on being aware of what we're doing. I think there's value in that.

So readers won't hear you or inspectors talk directly about behavior-based processes; OSHA will address the issue in the context of safety and health programs? Yes. You will find, though, references to behavior-based safety in our publications and in our outreach materials, in the training courses. It's going to become part of the literature, part of the knowledge we expect a safety and health professional to have. I would expect our folks, just like I would expect consultants and safety and health people in private industry, to be aware of the concept and to pick and choose which pieces of this behavioral safety field are useful.

If a reader was to ask you right now, "We've heard some good things and some bad things about behavioral safety programs, what do you think, Charles?" How would you answer? I'd say they have value. I would say that there's certainly something to be learned from these programs, something to be gained from addressing safety from a behavioral aspect. Are these programs the panacea? No. They're not the be-all and end-all. But do they have value? Yes, they do.

What do you think about incentive programs? Again, this is a topic readers have not heard OSHA take a position on. What's your feeling about incentives? I guess I have mixed feelings. I grew up in a DuPont family. Every six months it seemed like dad was bringing home a list of safety awards to choose from. It was something that did get people,in my family anyway,thinking about safety. So my history suggests incentive programs can be useful in raising safety consciousness. But having participated as the OSHA chief in North Carolina in ceremonies where you're handing out awards for companies having achieved millions of hours worked with no lost-time injuries, and there may be some kind of truck giveaway or something like that, I'm very much aware that there is a terrific amount of peer pressure created not to report accidents and not to report injuries. To the extent that incentive programs do encourage folks to come to work when they shouldn't, or encourage people to hide pain, then there are problems. I don't think there is one answer to the question: Are safety incentive programs good or bad? There are different kinds of incentive programs. The typical program gives an incentive for going so many days or hours or years without lost-time accidents. But there are also programs where you get incentives for noticing unsafe behavior, and for reporting unsafe behavior. It's not the accident you're focusing on, it's prevention issues. Incentive programs like that, I think, have real value. Programs that have inexpensive prizes, such as trinkets, are probably ways to keep people focused on safety. A contractor is now doing some research on the ways in which incentive programs are used. If the final report suggests that there are areas where OSHA should act to curb or discourage certain kinds of incentive programs, maybe we'll consider that. Most important from OSHA's point of view is having good data on what's hurting people. We will address anything that discourages people from reporting accidents and injuries.

You want inspectors to go beyond just enforcing rules to offer employers problem-solving help. What do you say to one of our readers who claims, "The OSHA inspector I know is just never going to change. He's always been a policeman, and you can't change the spots on a leopard"? (Laughter) I have more faith in human nature than that. I know I've learned a few things in the last few years. I think we all have the capacity to learn and grow. But it is true, if you've been doing things a certain way for a long time, changing the way in which you do things doesn't happen overnight. It will be something that's a culture change for us as an agency, just like we're asking employers to adopt a culture change. It's not something that happens overnight. We need to come to some conclusions within the agency on how we're going to go forward on setting a safety and health program standard. We need to develop a training program for our own compliance officers on how to evaluate safety and health programs. We will do all those things. For now, I'm encouraging inspectors to give an employer their best advice on how to improve the safety and health program when they are in a workplace.

What will be the scope of an ergonomics standard?

We're trying to focus on processes. Take a machine operator, for example, a pretty broad occupation that occurs in lots of different industrial classifications. Machine operators are at high risk for ergonomic musculoskeletal disorders. So I think our standard ought to cover machine operators. Does that mean every machine operator is at risk of an ergonomic injury or illness? No. But it means if you employ a number of machine operators, then you have an obligation to assess whether these people are at risk, and if they are, take some action. We're trying to focus on occupations and processes that are at risk. We know that lifting is a problem. Whether you're lifting patients in a healthcare setting or you're lifting stock in a warehouse, the lifting is a hazardous process. So that process needs to be covered by our standard.

What's the status of the safety and health program standard?

We're developing a safety and health program standard that is going to be a standard that we can expect everyone to comply with. It's not going to be the top of the line. It won't be something that's a Cadillac. It's going to be at a more basic level. I'd like to have a proposed rule issued this fiscal year on safety and health programs, and a proposed rule next fiscal year on ergonomics.

Several readers report hearing area office OSHA personnel who say the 'new OSHA' was a Joe Dear creation, and it's now back to business as usual for OSHA. Some readers perceive that the 'new OSHA' has passed like a fad. Your comments? Sounds like I have some work to do with my own agency (he laughs). We're committed to the reinvention of local area offices, one of the initiatives of the new OSHA is to complete the reinvention of all our area offices by the end of next fiscal year. The intent of having local offices strategical ly identify what they could do differently in their area to help reduce injuries and illnesses is very much alive, and will continue to be pushed. The other part of the new OSHA that is very much alive is the creation of partnerships with associations, unions, and businesses to address safety and health issues in ways that go beyond enforcement. That effort continues unabated. It's certainly my hope that the new OSHA will continue to grow. We need to be flexible, to learn, and to continuously improve. The new OSHA of the year 2000 will probably look differently than the 'new OSHA' of 1995.

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