OSHA agnostics in the halls of regulation

October 21, 2009
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As lobbyists and attorneys filed into room N3437 A-D in the Department of Labor building, a small group huddled near the front row of seats. "OSHA’s always been on the chopping block trying to justify its performance," said an agency official. "Is OSHA effective? We’ve never been able to answer that question."

She was standing between Dan Petersen and E. Scott Geller, two renown safety theorists who had traveled to Washington this cold April morning to shed light on the subject of measuring safety performance. They were to address the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, which is trying to help OSHA come up with ways to measure what it does. It’s part of a strategic plan that OSHA must submit to Congress under the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 -- an attempt to restore faith in federal agencies by making them set five-year goals and then chart their progress and results.

Petersen and Geller have given hundreds of presentations, but never together, and never to OSHA officials. They share another bond -- both possess little faith in OSHA. After 42 years in safety and penning 17 books, management consultant Petersen is not convinced that OSHA is needed. Compliance doesn’t get at the root of safety problems, he says.

Geller, a regular columnist for Industrial Safety & Hygiene News since 1990, draws standing-room-only crowds at conferences to hear him preach with missionary zeal on the psychology of safety -- how to get workers to, in his words, "actively care" for one another. Geller rarely mentions OSHA in his talks or articles, and when he does it’s often to use the agency as an example of outmoded "command and control" safety tactics.

Unusual meeting: The usual cast of observers at these NACOSH meetings, who show up to keep groups like the American Veterinary Medical Association and the National Roofing Contractors Association informed about OSHA goings-on, had little idea what they were in for this morning. Two OSHA agnostics, with large followings in the safety field, would take on guardians of the regulatory machine. A two-hour debate ensued that had little to do with measuring OSHA’s performance. What it did was underscore how little agreement there is on the best ways to make workplaces safe. In the end, all involved were probably left unsatisfied, save for making their own positions clear. Petersen began the discussion by sketching the history of safety-related performance measures, noting with regret industry’s preoccupation with compliance starting in the 1970s. "Regulatory compliance has very little impact on safety effectiveness," he told the committee. "There ain’t no one right way to do safety. An organization’s culture dictates the effectiveness of safety elements. Your guidelines for a safety program (currently being worked into a proposed standard) run contrary to the real world."

Petersen, dressed in white shirt and tie, went on to explain the current use in industry of "leading upstream" indicators such as sampling the percentage of unsafe employee behaviors that eventually lead to accidents, and "downstream" measures like perception surveys that show what workers really think about a company’s safety effort. "The problem is, so many managers are tied to accident numbers because OSHA requires them to," he said. "It’s a lousy measure. You’re measuring stuff over which you have damn little control. What I’m saying is, many of the things OSHA requires flies in the face of what really improves a safety system."

"Junk stuff": Petersen’s matter-of-fact delivery and kindly tone couched his jabs at the soul of the agency in a velvet glove. He finished by predicting if OSHA continued to measure itself with "junk stuff" like inspections and fines -- "anyone can get those numbers" -- the agency would accomplish as little in the next 25 years as it has in the last 25 years, an opinion he bases on the nation’s unchanging rate of workplace injuries. Dr. Geller, wearing a casual sport shirt befitting a university professor (he teaches psychology at Virginia Tech) took the microphone and in his first 30 seconds proposed redefining OSHA and NIOSH’s historic roles. Make NIOSH the investigator and researcher; OSHA will be the disseminator and hold companies accountable for following along, he suggested. As it is now, "frankly OSHA is not seen as a helping organization," Geller said.

One of his consulting clients once greeted OSHA inspectors at the door with an invitation to come in and look around, only to be told that, "We’re here to write citations," Geller told the committee. He used the anecdote to stress one of his basic principles: "People are far more motivated to achieve than to avoid failure, like a fine." If that’s the mind-set OSHA has created, "we’ve got a problem." Perhaps moved by his visit to Washington, Geller ended his brief remarks by saying, "We need safety by the people, for the people, not for the government."

Petersen and Geller joked before the meeting that they weren’t theorists but terrorists, and committee members -- most of whom have spent their careers in the regulatory arena -- were quick to respond to their attacks. If there is not a high, positive correlation between compliance and safety, asked Kenneth Zeller, commissioner of Indiana’s Department of Labor, why do investigations find that trenching and lockout-tagout fatalities could have been prevented if standards had been followed? And if a safety and health program standard won’t work, isn’t it at least a starting point for small businesses to change their culture?

If the regulatory approach has failed, asked Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO’s Safety and Health Department, why has mining -- the most heavily regulated industry for safety -- showed the best improvements? "From the public health standpoint, there is overwhelming evidence that regulations have made an enormous difference," said James Merchant, a physician and professor at the University of Iowa.

Missing the point: "It’s not clear to me at all how all this stuff relates to some of the biggest problems in occupational health and safety today, like ergonomics," weighed in Nancy Lessin, representing the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. She found the emphasis on employee behaviors "frightening," and likened cultural influences to Christian principles that sound good but have never motivated much safety improvement. Instead, the focus should be on management systems -- line speeds, production quotas, threats of plant closure -- "that are behind the behavior you’re having people watch." She favored putting managers responsible for fatal unsafe acts behind bars as a way of "modifying employer behavior."

After the meeting, Lessin walked up to Geller and told him, "The bottom line is, your behavior approach sees the worker as the problem. From a union perspective we see the worker as the solution."

Geller and Petersen parried these comments, patiently explaining their positions. With inspections several times a year, regulatory people do the safety work in mining, emphasized Petersen. "Is that what you want in general industry? Let’s be practical." Behavioral checklists are not for employees only, said Geller. "They’re for managers, too. They should be done at all levels."

But the meeting played out like a religious debate on CSPAN. No one budged from their beliefs. "If OSHA can just get management to listen to its employees, you’ll solve most of the safety problems," said Petersen to several committee members afterwards. "On that at least we agree," smiled Seminario. The committee went off to lunch, the two consultants left to catch planes, and the question still stands: How do you achieve and measure a safe workplace?

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