Thought Leadership


Renewing OSHA’s promise through public right to know

July 14, 2009
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Last year, over 2.5 million workers lost their jobs and this year the numbers may reach 3 million more jobs lost. We are deep into the worst labor crisis since 1945 and naturally, massive efforts to stimulate the staggering economy are foremost on the minds of many. But as a Risk Manager and Safety and Health professional, I cannot also avoid thinking that this is a potentially dangerous time for American workers and a critical time for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

There are enormous pressures on workers. They will be asked to be more productive and take less pay and they are going to be far less likely to complain about unsafe workplaces or injuries that can cost them a paycheck. And with employers making hard choices between cutting costs and cutting jobs, safety and health protections for workers may be first in line to be cut. In today’s crisis economy, any OSHA regulatory activities will be trumpeted as job-killing instead of life-saving.

Nevertheless, the hope and promise of the Obama Administration has the industrial health and safety community buzzing about fresh changes for OSHA. Several very worthy fixes have been vetted by major safety and health professional associations but in my view, they are fixes for a 20th century OSHA. It’s like trying to put some new rims, tires and paint on a ‘72 Gran Torino. It’s a nice ride but it’s still a ’72.

OSHA has been stuck in a zero-sum regulation paradigm for quite a while. With Labor and Management working from extreme examples, the only constant from administration to administration is a zero sum game. If the Democrats are in power, Labor wants OSHA to slam employers, while if Republicans are in power, employers get complete freedom from regulation. Labor proclaims examples of employers wantonly killing employees to make a buck while employers tout examples of thoughtless regulation flushing money and jobs down the drain for no benefit. Stalemate is the desired outcome for both parties who cannot show any sign of weakness or willingness to admit the other side has some validity. Unfortunately reasonable employers, workers wanting safe workplaces, and, most importantly the public are left out of the game.

What both sides seem to forget is that OSHA is a government entity, not just an enforcer of labor interests, or business partner to employers. The government is the public and the public is the government. OSHA should represent managing occupational safety and health for the public. This is the basis of my “radical new theory” for OSHA’s renewal in the 21st century: have the government agency act on behalf of the public first. The public, of course, includes both employees and employers but it also includes a majority stakeholder in OSHA, the public, who are always left out of the OSHA equation. Quite simply, having the public become the stakeholder in the center will renew OSHA for the decades to come.

OSHA needs to grasp a new paradigm combining Risk Management and Transparency though an initiative I would call Public Right to Know. This would end the current zero sum game. Risk management is many things, but focusing on reducing uncertainty and increasing desired outcomes by scientific anticipation and effective flexibility is a big part of it. For renewing OSHA, my concept is to combine the Public Right to Know with exceptionally strong positive financial incentives for high quality management that invests in employee’s health and safety while ratcheting up penalties for management that wants to trade employee lives for dollars. Since risk management looks at improving outcomes through either positive incentive or fear of loss, both the upside and downside risks need to be commensurate with the stakes in the outcome. More importantly than developing stronger positive and negative incentives is the need for the agency to recognize that the public is the agency’s strongest potential ally in accomplishing its mission and it needs to get the public involved with occupational safety and health.

Public Right to Know is a way to describe what occupational safety and health transparency is all about, and is clearly a concept whose time has come for both employees, employers, OSHA, and the public. Transparency is simply requiring all businesses to post, through an OSHA organized system, safety and health performance metric information on the internet frequently and regularly. The information would be specific to company workplaces, include such things as significant OSHA violations totaled up like points on a bad driver’s license. But most importantly, a wide array of useful safety and health information will be available to the public on a frequently updated basis. The transparency mandate should be phased in over several years with incentives to voluntarily become more and more transparent in advance of the mandate deadline.

Of course this is not a simple task and there are a thousand details that make it difficult for different industries and employers, particularly the exact nature of the metrics. However, the reasons for not doing it pale in comparison to the profound positives this comprehensive act of requiring real time public disclosure of safety and health performance would do for worker’s safety and health around the world.

Those who are aghast at the idea of this level of Public Right to Know transparency for safety and health metrics must think they are living in the robber-baron era of the late 1800’s when employees were considered the property of the business. In my view, a company that does not share its safety and health performance with the public is insisting on the right to privately injure employees.

Is this “none of your business” attitude appropriate where there are countless examples of transparency leading to business success while hiding information leads to disaster? Hiding safety and health data means that one company’s product may contain more “pain and suffering” than another produced by the competition, but that the company believes its stakeholders and customers don’t have the right to know how much. We can hold up two products and compare how “green” they are; why can’t we compare how many worker injuries went into each product?

Contrast the candid public reporting of “green” and other environmental metrics with the amount of candid public reporting of safety and health metrics (a lot vs. very little). Then contrast the resources and business efforts applied to managing “environmental” issues and “worker safety and health” (again, a lot vs. very little). The relationship is not a coincidence. It is all about the Public Right to Know.

What about our current dismal state of reported metrics? The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released our nation’s “scorecard” for safety performance, but incredibly, the highly generalized safety data are from 2007! What other profession uses 2 year old data? Banks using data the same age as OSHA’s would still think the economy was booming!

And it’s not like the technology is not there. For example, anyone in the world can buy “Turbotax” software and can be walked through the creation, organization, and sending of complex data forms to a Federal agency from any internet linked computer. Are safety and health metrics really that much more difficult than income taxes? OSHA could certainly create and give out free “TurboSafety Metrics” software to collect comprehensive real time safety and health performance metrics, much of which can be posted for the public.

The most significant change in OSHA in the past decade has been a concept that says voluntary compliance is more desirable than compliance through citations. There would be far more voluntary compliance if employers knew that not only OSHA but the public can review their performance in essentially real time. Remember, the government is the public and the public is the government. In today’s flat world information age, there should be very little difference between what the government wants from business and labor and what the public wants from business and labor. Transparency enables both the government and the public to see who is effective in occupational safety and health. And OSHA, Labor, management and the public will all care about that metric much more when it is transparent. That is why we need a Public Right to Know.

The internet has proven that when there is widespread interest in information an audience builds itself. Safety and Health transparency will open many creative possibilities for the safety and health profession, the public, and by extension, other state and local government entities. The issue is OSHA will never be able to regulate and enforce its way to a world of consistent national high quality safety and health performance. But with a transparency mandate, OSHA partners with the public and together they can create a world of high quality safety and health performance.

Just for example, imagine the enhanced value of safety and health to management in a world where the company stock jumps several points in reaction to a positive quarterly safety data release. Imagine a municipality being asked to provide millions in tax breaks to a company that is negotiating relocation of a 1000 job plant. The town can easily find out whether the company has either a poor or great safety performance and negotiate subsidies accordingly. After all, the town’s mothers, brothers, fathers and sisters are going to working in that facility. With Public Right to Know, the town has the option to compare the tax breaks against the potential sacrifice its citizens and families will make in a new plant with a company whose history includes unsafe working conditions. Of course companies can eye their competitor’s metrics as well. What’s wrong with that? Is having a bad safety performance somehow putting a company at a competitive disadvantage? Could it be bad for business if the press reported a company’s bad safety performance? Good! Maybe they’ll try good safety performance to get a competitive advantage! Or, if they don’t maybe they should get out of the business and stop injuring people. Further examples where Public Right to Know will generate proactive improvements in occupational safety and health are vast and easy to imagine.

Over several years, the surge in safety and health investments from incentives and Public Right to Know would lead the United States back to world leadership in safety and health, and set an example for other countries around the world join in with this combination transparency and incentive program. This future can happen if we look beyond simply reforming OSHA. Renew OSHA’s promise for all America, not just those who support the Administration who happens to be in power.
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