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Does anyone like the 'new OSHA'?

May 20, 2000
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Here's a rare event for Washington: In mid-October a Congressional subcommittee held what could be called a friendly OSHA hearing. "We want to hear more about reinvention. It all sounds good. We want to know what they're up to," explained a subcommittee staff person.

That's a common question these days. What's going on with the vaunted effort to create a "new OSHA"? Especially since some recent developments indicate that the road to reinvention has hit some potholes.

The plan to focus only on a handful of major hazards during inspections of companies with good safety and health programs, scheduled for narrow industry sectors like nursing homes and auto plants, is back on the drawing board. Industry reaction has been, "It's a great idea but don't try it on me," explains one agency source.

Another policy cutting penalties for "quick fixes"- hazards corrected before an inspection is finished-has been folded into existing penalty reduction formulas. Critics said it rewarded employers for waiting until an inspector showed up before fixing problems.

And the plan for grading safety and health programs to see if they qualify for focused inspections "has been changed quite a bit," according to John Miles, the agency's director of compliance programs. Inspectors would rather rate programs using an average score, instead of the lowest rating given to any of six program components.

These policy directives were scheduled to be sent to field inspectors in early October. Now OSHA officials don't know when they will be put in place. Miles says it should be some time this month. Another OSHA source won't even speculate, explaining, "We're getting more criticism than we expected."

Familiar woes

Some things never change. The new OSHA is bedeviled by old problems-no matter what the agency does, it's hard to please anyone. Unions complain reinvention ideas are too business friendly. "All of the directives under development are designed to reduce OSHA enforcement actions," wrote AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario in a letter to agency chief Joe Dear.

Dear got another letter, this one from a coalition of grass roots safety and health groups, that declared, "Trying to fend off Congressional attacks on OSHA by having the agency gut itself is a losing strategy."

Meanwhile, the business community has its own complaints. Attorneys for employers say hardball enforcement is still played in the field. "All my clients must be bad actors, because none of them are getting any breaks," says one lawyer. He calls a lot of the talk about reinventing OSHA "lip service" and empty promises.

What do safety and health professionals think? Most haven't seen enough evidence of change to form an opinion. So far, reinvention has been confined to pilot projects like the "Maine 200" targeted inspection program, and outreach efforts by a few area offices.

Not surprisingly, the push to redefine OSHA has also met with internal dissent. A source with close ties to the agency says many of the ten regional administrators have been slow to get on board. "They haven't bought into it yet. Frankly, in some cases you're going to need a new generation of people to come in," he says.

Attitudes and morale are not the only things holding back reinvention. Important management issues need to be worked out. Area offices are being pushed so hard to come up with innovative partnerships and compliance assistance programs, it's tough to monitor activity back in Washington. There's also the challenge of de-centralized empowerment. Any plant manager who has struggled for consistency with teams on the shop floor would understand. Harvard University professor Malcolm Sparrow, who has consulted for OSHA's "redesign team," describes it this way: "If you give area offices too much flexibility, nothing happens; give them too little and it stifles local initiative."

Organizational shortcomings came to light recently in a flap over one local venture. Safety and health union leaders howled when OSHA's Atlanta East area office reached an enforcement and problem-solving agreement with poultry employers in the region without consulting the International Food and Commercial Workers Union. Local unions were involved in discussions, according to agency officials.

The Atlanta episode epitomizes the reinvention debate. OSHA officials point to the agreement as a shining example of their new pragmatic approach to correcting major safety hazards. "OSHA will work with anyone who has an interest" in reducing dangers facing an industry or group of workers, explains Sparrow.

But union leaders see a darker agenda. "They're meeting secretly with some of the most dangerous industries and cutting deals," says Bill Borwegen, safety and health director of the Service Employees International Union.

Learning curve

OSHA officials say lessons have been learned from the Atlanta experience. There will be better, more organized communication between field and national offices. "The unions have some legitimate beefs about how the poultry (project) was handled," says one official. "We (in Washington) can't be the last to know about things. We want to make sure (local) decisions are looked at from every possible angle, because we're more sensitive to the hot buttons. We're the ones who take the arrows if something goes wrong."

Union and employer representatives both want Dear to take a strong hand in managing change at his agency-but for different reasons. Employers don't want to see reinvention going in 67 directions at once (the number of area offices across the country). "OSHA's learning that (area directors) don't always exercise discretion too well," says Dennis Morikawa, an attorney with the firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius.

Labor wants Dear to strike a better balance between enforcement and appeasement. "All the talk is about giving companies a break. Nothing has been said about getting more aggressive with bad actors," says Borwegen.

OSHA is working on checks and balances. Officials say some type of system will be developed to notify Washington of local initiatives before critical stages are reached. And Miles acknowledges union fears: "The first comment (about reinvention) is that it looks like we're giving away the store to employers. We know labor's concerns. We're still looking for ways to be strong with new enforcement programs."

Other agency officials concede there's been a rush to reinvent. They want to slow down the process and think it through. "We're overwhelming our folks" with new ideas, says one.

But they're being pushed by Vice President Gore's reinventing government task force. The National Performance Review team issued a report on the new OSHA with fanfare last May. The policies scheduled for an October release are in response to that report. "We were backed into a corner on some of the dates," says one OSHA manager.

Sparrow says "very serious" discussions are going on in the agency to define core elements, or the heart and soul, of the new OSHA. This is to bring better cohesion to reinvention as it rolls out through the area offices. Data-driven initiatives that focus on activities, not outcomes; projects addressing the whole range of injuries and illnesses; and making use of partnerships-these are the core elements, according to Sparrow. The type of data used (workers' comp records or injury statistics, for instance); project targets (specific hazards, segments of employee populations, or employer groups like the "Maine 200"); project partners; and the strategy used to solve problems, are all decisions left to the area offices.

More than policy directives, how local agency personnel manage these decisions will make or break reinvention, say many OSHA-watchers. The "New OSHA" report calls for 37 offices to be trained in developing outreach efforts by the end of 1996.

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