ISHN

EHS WORLDWIDE HORIZONS: Obama's OSHA - ready to lead?

January 9, 2009


During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama made a number of pledges to “strengthen occupational safety and health” by increasing funding for OSHA inspections and training, issuing more standards and supporting the enactment of the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which he co-sponsored in the Senate and which would increase OSHA civil and criminal penalties, expand coverage to public employees and enhance protections for whistleblowers.

In short, he has been a rather vigorous proponent of a more (how should I say this?) “traditionally activist” OSHA. By “traditionally activist,” I mean an agency that is likely to pursue an agenda typical of past Democratic administrations — shifting the emphasis from voluntary programs to more aggressive enforcement and standards-setting and seeking legislative reform that gives OSHA more “teeth” and a broader reach. So does that mean we’re likely to see one of the “same old same old” pendulum swings that have characterized past shifts in administration from one political party to the other?

At this point, the signs surely are that the pendulum will indeed swing. But I’d like to think there is also perhaps a once in a generation opportunity for a more fundamental change in the direction of national workplace safety and health policy, especially if the safety and health community takes an active role in demanding such change.

Winning back a skeptical profession

It is striking that in ISHN’s recent annual White Paper, there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm among safety and health pros for OSHA becoming more active in standards-setting, including updating the U.S.’s woefully outdated permissible exposure limits (PELs). Nor are most safety pros apparently much interested in increased enforcement activity. In ISHN’s survey, only 21 percent of respondents said they would like to see the new OSHA team increase standards-setting activity in 2009, one-third supported updating the PELs and 26 percent wanted to see increased enforcement.

Some have suggested that this tepid response simply reflects the heavy workload demands already imposed on the profession in a hyper-competitive global economy. Others argue for a more positive “spin” — that the practice of safety and health has “matured” and is no longer dependent on OSHA.

My own assessment is this: both these interpretations have some merit, but there is something else at work. OSHA is increasingly perceived as having lost touch with much of the safety and health profession and the businesses and other organizations that it serves. There is pervasive skepticism that OSHA’s traditional and predominant activities, with the possible exception of training and outreach (70 percent of ISHN survey respondents favored more from OSHA), will have a positive impact on worker safety and health. This is because, in large measure, OSHA has failed to adapt its priorities and programs to the new world of work and to advocate the use of approaches to protecting workers that are becoming predominant globally.

Actively engaging all stakeholders

The new administration does have an opportunity to “win back” these many doubters and enlist their support for new programs and policies. But OSHA can’t accomplish this by merely reasserting its legal authority to issue more regulations and citations — the agency needs to reach out to the broad range of workplace safety and health stakeholders and actively engage them in the policy-making process.

In many ways, OSHA needs to “re-learn” what the challenges of today’s workplaces are and what policies, strategies and tools will be effective in reducing risks to workers.

In an era where transparency and accountability are ascendant and when OSHA and other agencies are supposedly trying to be more “customer friendly,” OSHA has generally been doggedly reluctant to bring stakeholders in at an early stage of the policy-development process to provide informal input, let alone to contribute as “partners” in the policy development process. A more open and transparent agency will, in the long run, be better able to be more responsive and effective in its mission. And an OSHA that takes the initiative to collaborate with its stakeholders and seek common ground on some important issues would be reasserting the leadership that has too often been missing in the past.

What we can expect from OSHA

So what are the issues, policy-initiatives and strategies that are likely to be at the top of the new administration’s agenda for OSHA? Until an Assistant Secretary for OSHA is named and confirmed, a process that is likely to take three to six months — even allowing for the fast pace with which the Obama transition is moving — it will take awhile for the agency’s agenda to emerge.

Still, I’m willing to jump right in and offer my fearless forecast of OSHA’s Top Ten Priorities over the next four years, with the sincere hope that OSHA will actively engage the agency’s stakeholders in the development of many if not all of these initiatives.

Obama’s OSHA will:
  1. Implement initiatives on injury and illness recordkeeping — these may have several components but at a minimum will involve increased scrutiny of employer OSHA 300 logs, medical and first aid reports and workers’ compensation records.
  2. Issue several new or revised standards, including Cranes and Derricks, Combustible Dust, Beryllium, Silica, and Hazard Communication to incorporate the Globally Harmonized System of Chemical Labeling.
  3. Undertake a broad range of administrative, regulatory and perhaps legislative initiatives to promote, incentivize and require a greater focus on regulating risk in the workplace through the implementation of safety and health management systems.
  4. Actively support the enactment of the Protect America’s Workers Act in some form that would include most of the provisions mentioned above.
  5. Make a concerted effort to increase the OSHA budget for standards-setting, training and enforcement activity.
  6. Re-examine OSHA’s inspection targeting system to improve the targeting of high-hazard workplaces and especially health and construction inspections.
  7. Engage in an effort to find viable alternative administrative and legislative approaches to updating OSHA’s permissible exposure limits.
  8. Carefully scrutinize whether the Bush administration’s emphasis on voluntary programs (VPP, Partnerships, Alliances) has proven to be a cost-effective use of OSHA’s resources.
  9. Engage in an effort, which may include both administrative and legislative initiatives, to improve the OSHA standards-setting process.
  10. Increase the visibility and influence of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health.
Whether these particular predictions turn out to be right or wrong, we are surely in for a dynamic new era at OSHA. Hopefully, it will prove to be one in which important strides are made in keeping the promise of the OSH Act to assure safe and healthful workplaces for all workers.