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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: After almost 40 years… OSHA fatigue sets in

November 4, 2008
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For much of U.S. industry, especially small and mid-size operations, job safety has been a one-trick pony for the past 35, almost 40 years. That pony has been OSHA.

“When I first got into the safety business 24 years ago, my job was all about OSHA,” says the global safety leader for a Fortune 500 company. “Interpreting regs. Ensuring compliance. Dotting the ‘I’s’ and crossing the ‘T’s’.”

This fellow was far from alone in his assignment. But 35-40 years is a long time to ride one pony. No wonder OSHA appears to have given out.

Where’s the interest?

This notion struck me at the start of a session, “The Future of OSHA,” at the National Safety Congress in September. Sitting toward the front of the large hall, I turned around, and saw that at least half of the seats were empty.

This is an election year. The session moderator called it an “historic election.” The first speaker, a longtime Washington insider, started by saying, “Big change is the buzz in Washington.” Change is in the air every four years in Washington. But down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, little has changed at the Department of Labor, where OSHA is housed. Lawmakers give so little thought to OSHA that the agency’s enabling legislation, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, has not once been seriously amended since its enactment in 1970.

Drained of drama

Waiting for this session to start, my mind wandered back years ago, when the National Safety Congress was held in the bowels of the stately, old Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. An ornate ballroom of the old Hilton was filling up for a speech by President Reagan’s first OSHA chief, Thorne Auchter. There weren’t many empty seats at all. Suspense was in the air. Who was this construction guy from Florida, and what was he going to say?

During the presidential campaign, Reagan had made OSHA a poster boy for all that was wrong with government intervention. Strangulation by regulation. Talk on Capitol Hill grew louder of simply killing OSHA off. A “STOP OSHA” lobbying campaign had its offices a few blocks from the Hill.

No one talks about knocking off OSHA these days. There’s no need to. No one talks about OSHA these days. One of the panelists at this year’s “Future of OSHA” keynote mentioned that the agency was nearing 40 years old. That’s one middle-aged pony; no wonder it’s slowed down and folks just leave it alone.

There was no sense of anticipation or drama in that large hall in the Anaheim Convention Center. Even though the stage was literally set for something of a showdown, with a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sitting next to a Democratic staffer on the Hill, a liberal labor rights blogger and former union safety official, I doubt anyone in the room expected fireworks.

It’s been years since OSHA was the center of any real shouting match, the center of any emotion. The ergo reg was the last gunfight at the OSHA corral.

Canned debate

Since that fight in 2000, and even in the decades before, you get the sense the small group of OSHA adversaries, the unions on one side, the U.S. Chamber and the National Association of Manufacturers on the other, have gone so many rounds against each other without decisive outcomes on either side, they’ve tired of fighting over the same old turf. By now they’ve memorized each other’s positions and know each other’s moves so well, when they take to the stage you don’t get a confrontation, but a canned debate. You know what each side will say before it’s said. So half of the seats or more in the room in Anaheim were empty.

OSHA’s future was indeed predictably two-sided. We need more standards. No, we don’t. We need more enforcement. No, we need more education, we need buses with billboards on the back saying, “Safety First.” We need public service announcements about job safety. No, we need stiffer criminal penalties. We need more inspectors. No, there will never be enough.

Will this dialog change in any substantial manner after January 20th? Probably not, and safety and health pros know it full well.

Yes, OSHA still can pull the stunner, as speaker Frank White of ORC Worldwide, the neutral panelist, said, “Ergonomics has the capability of blowing everything up very easily, very quickly.”

To which the Chamber representative responded, “Ergonomics is a non-starter in the employer community. We will again expend great resources against it if it comes up.”

That might happen, but not on January 21st. It will take six to nine months to recruit a new OSHA chief. It will take time for his team to get in place. Then years for feasibility research on whether an ergo rule is even possible, if that’s the direction the new administration wants to go. Been there, done that.

Who’d have thought the day would come OSHA would be a yawner.

Moving on

But that’s not all a bad thing. Frank White’s ORC Worldwide group has moved on to provide input on global safety and health issues, many coming out of the European Union, that are shaping the safety and health procedures of many U.S. companies along the global supply chain.

U.S. safety and health professionals have moved on from dotting the “I’s” and crossing the “T’s” to more challenging and impactful work: assessing organizational cultures, coaching executives through leadership responsibilities, and ensuring that everyone in the organization understands that job safety is much more than that old, one-trick pony, OSHA.

The losers

Washington coming down with a case of OSHA fatigue does have its casualties. The overwhelming majority of U.S. workplaces do not have a safety and health professional on staff. These small firms, off the OSHA grid so to speak, are rarely inspected, rarely consulted, rarely trained. They have no lobby ready to expend great resources to ensure safe working conditions. They have no voice, no clout, and in many cases, no protections.

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