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EDITORIAL COMMENTS: What "The Big O" means for OSHA

December 3, 2008
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Just kidding about that.

So it’s Barack Obama. In a Senate hearing earlier this year, he had this to say (actually submitting a written statement): “Industry-backed appointees have weakened OSHA enforcement, eviscerated regulatory standards programs, and ignored emerging workplace hazards.”

And he supported an amendment that made “willful” or “grossly negligent” safety and health violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) a criminal felony, and would increase fines for wage-and-hour infractions and OSHA violations.

The president-elect is also on record in favor of taking another shot at an ergonomics standard. Good luck. “Ergonomics is a non-starter in the employer community. We will again expend great resources against it if it comes up,” said Marc Freedman, director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, during a panel discussion at this past fall’s National Safety Congress.

What’s ahead?

So where does OSHA go in Obama’s presidency? The possibilities are endless. You know the pent-up demand for new standards, dating back at least 15 years, from organized labor will make itself known. The American Industrial Hygiene Association recently issued its annual list of members’ top public policy issues, with updating permissible exposure limits a priority.

Been there, tried that.

I suggest you visit the blog, The Pump Handle, and read Dr. Michael Silverstein’s paper published earlier this year in the American Journal of Public Health: “Getting Home Safe and Sound: Occupational Safety and Health Administration at 38 (http://thepumphandle.wordpress.com/osha-paper). Dr. Silverstein, a high-ranking OSHA official during the Clinton years, whose wife led the ergonomics standard project in the 1990s, has articulated a vision for a future OSHA. Prominent is the blueprint for a generic safety and health program management rule. I also suggest visiting ORC Worldwide’s EHS consulting Web site (www.orc-dc.com) for a sharp, insightful “new approach to national OSHA policy” penned by another former OSHA higher-up, ORC Senior VP Frank White.

What direction OSHA takes in the next four years is, naturally, up in the air now, and will be for some months. Readers of ISHN have watched the OSHA pendulum swing back and forth over the decades, depending on the White House occupant. First, the new president must select his secretary of labor. That’s big. Months later will come the OSHA chief nomination.

The last time OSHA went truly activist, it was Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole providing cover and support for OSHA chief Jerry Scannell during the term of Bush 41. Scannell, you might recall, had many ideas, including a motor vehicle safety standard. Many OSHA-watchers, former agency officials, say the labor secretary’s attitude toward OSHA is critical to what happens, or doesn’t happen with the agency. For a recent example, see the tenure of the well-intentioned, extremely professional and respected John Henshaw, who labored (pun intended) with few concrete results under his boss, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

Lay off the standards-setting

One thing is clear at this early point in the process — if most safety and health pros could get the ear of Obama, they’d say something along the lines of “no mas, no mas.”

What’s that?

The date was November 25, 1980. The fighter known for his “Fists of Stone,” Roberto Duran, was defending his title belt against Sugar Ray Leonard. With 16 seconds left in the eighth round, Duran, whose boxing career and image had been built around hardcore machismo, had enough. He told the referee, “No mas, no mas.” No more, no more. After regaining his title, Leonard said, according to an ESPN account, “To make a man quit… was better than knocking him out.”

Most EHS pros, about eight out of ten, according to ISHN’s 25th annual “State of the EHS Nation” White Paper survey, want OSHA to quit setting standards. Given the regime change coming in the White House, the Labor Department and OSHA, this is a significant statement. In coming months you’ll see a flurry of proposals for new standards coming from the activist wing of the EHS community. This is a disjointed collection of unions, some OSHA-oriented consultants, certain current and former OSHA officials, bloggers, grassroots groups, and according to our research, about 20 percent of EHS professionals.

The silent majority

But the “silent majority” of professionals, equally disjointed, want nothing of this standards-setting action. These pros have no Web site, no blog, no newsletter, no media-accessible, sound bite-savvy spokesperson. Many are members of the American Industrial Hygiene Association and/or the American Society of Safety Engineers. But many do not always embrace the various political positions taken by these groups.

The silent non-support of OSHA shows how significantly times have changed. “Our Savior Has Arrived,” aka OSHA, was the rallying cry of many health and safety pros in the early 1970s, when the agency first came on the scene. OSHA triggered a tremendous boom in demand for health and safety expertise.

Now the clear lack of support for a more activist OSHA surprises some in the EHS community. It pleases others who want the profession to move beyond the safety net of compliance. Another factor in OSHA’s lack of support is the slow but sure growing influence of EPA in the work of many professionals. Many pros also take issue with the agency’s perceived lack of competency, disconnect from “on the ground” workplace realities, and regulations that they contend are unnecessarily lengthy, complicated and often confusing. And to many, waving off more standards is simply a matter of already having too much work to do, more than anything ideological.

Enough stress already

“Each new rule from OSHA further shrinks the work year with additional recordkeeping and annual training mandates that even workers dread after the first two or three repeats of endless repeats to come,” said an industrial hygienist from heavy industry with 31 years of experience, who requested anonymity.

“More reduction of workplace exposures has occurred as a result of EPA rules and activities such as enforcement of their leak detection and repair (LDAR) regulations than has occurred due to all OSHA’s air contaminant exposure control efforts,” he said. “The difference in effectiveness as I see it is that EPA isn’t as shy about imposing huge penalties and jail time if needed to ‘help’ business managers establish appropriate priorities.”

“Because OSHA has become a paper tiger, companies have responded to the decreasing threat of OSHA enforcement by assigning more and more non-safety responsibilities to safety and health pros,” said another certified industrial hygienist in the Midwest.

“If OSHA were to update PELs and take other actions recommended by some stakeholders, these safety and health pros, who already are overstretched learning their new lines of responsibility, would have to redouble their safety and health regulatory compliance efforts — probably with no reduction in these ancillary duties and little or no increase in support,” said this professional.

Throwing a life-preserver?

So here we go again. Another swing of the pendulum. Another raft of new appointees. More congressional hearings. A batch of new proposals. With federal intervention running at an all-time high in some sectors of the economy such as finance, heck, the White House might decide to bail out one of its own, a down-trodden agency accused of incompetence, underfunded and largely inactive for years.

But would a serious budget increase for OSHA matter? Many say you can’t throw money at a problem, regardless of how many billions are now being tossed about like gigantic life-preservers.

Many will also tell you OSHA has been on life-support for years and needs an infusion of new blood, ideas, maybe cash, definitely leadership. This isn’t just to prop up standards-setting. In today’s flat, globalized world, where companies manufacture everywhere around the globe and execs as well as EHS professionals travel from country to country auditing plants like they once hopped around the states, OSHA needs to be a world leader in occupational safety and health. Right now, it’s far from it.

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