A press release from OSHA's Region I headquarters in Boston sent out in July was the final straw for Dick Hughes, owner of the Excellence in Safety consulting service in Falmouth, Mass. OSHA and the Construction Safety Roundtable of Eastern Massachusetts were teaming up to provide workshops on construction safety, and to promote free safety consultation services.

"If this 'friendly OSHA' trend continues unchecked, us private sector trainers will be gone when OSHA gets bored with the challenges of teaching America's workforce and is told to get back to their core mission of enforcing America's safety laws," Hughes wrote in an email to ISHN.

He wasn't finished. In a follow-up op/ed piece submitted to ISHN, Hughes elaborated: "Private sector safety consultants who make their living by presenting training programs to workers and managers on the finer points of OSHA's complex standards are now trying, and often failing, to compete against these 'free' OSHA sessions."

Is this a lone voice from Cape Cod, or is the "Capesafetyguy" (Hughes's AOL email address) describing a development with serious consequences for the swelling ranks of safety and health consultants and trainers?

Nothing new

To be sure, OSHA has offered free consulting and training materials for decades, but not with the vigor seen in recent years. OSHA's "outreach" emphasis has grown steadily since the mid-1990s. Most recently, headlines from the August 15 edition of the agency's "QuickTakes" e-newsletter announced a new Web-based training tool for baggage handlers, an electronic assistance tool for young workers in agriculture, and a process safety management workshop. On OSHA's Web site, an inventory of 29 downloadable "e-tools" and a dozen "expert advisors" are available, plus 11 videos and 20 PowerPoint presentations. Each of OSHA's 67 area offices is now staffed with a Compliance Assistance Specialist, a new position created to help employers and stir demand for the consultation program. And more than 160 partnerships have been signed covering more than 3,800 employers and 200,000 employees.

This is all part of OSHA chief John Henshaw's strategy to "touch more people and save more lives through outreach and assistance," as he described in an interview with ISHN. As the pragmatic Henshaw explains, "We can only handle about two percent of the (nation's) workplaces through enforcement." Henshaw vows that there's been no retreat in the hunt for "bad actors" with poor safety records. But he sums up his philosophy: "Our objective is not just to cite and issue penalties. It's to change the workplace. OSHA is here to help employers."

Businesses are warming up to that message. In fiscal year 2002, employers and employees placed almost 140,000 calls to OSHA on the agency's toll-free line, and emailed more than 14,000 questions and comments. In a six-month span from October 2002 to April 2003, OSHA's Web site registered more than 23 million visits.

No consensus

So what's the impact of OSHA's helping hand on for-profit consultants and trainers?ISHNasked 40 safety and health pros to comment on Hughes's concerns. As with any issue surrounding the agency, opinions are divided.

"No whining," says longtime safety consultant Tom Lawrence, CSP. "Consultants have to change with the times." He adds: "I can't imagine one Compliance Assistance Specialist in each area office can put a large dent into a consultant's business."

"OSHA's new stance on advise and train hasn't hurt my business at all," says another consulting veteran.

"Because of OSHA outreach in my area, I get more people in training programs," says Chip Dawson, a consultant in the Rochester, N.Y. area.

But Hughes is not alone in his assessment. "The big stick is being reduced and that is having a negative impact on the consulting business," says Utah consultant David Pierce.

More broadly, Hughes's concerns are echoed by The Safety Publishers Council of the Instructional Systems Association, made up of safety training vendors. "We're very alarmed at OSHA's encroachment into the training products and services industry," says Rick Pollack, CSP, president of Comprehensive Loss Management, Inc. "When we are competing with OSHA and taxpayer funding, we don't stand a chance."

Here's OSHA chief Henshaw's comeback, from an interview with ISHN last year: "I guess H&R Block would say the same thing about the IRS (Internal Revenue Service), in terms of giving the tools out on how to submit your income tax. Congress gave us the responsibility 30 years ago to do certain things, and we're executing that, using all the tools and all the ability and responsibility Congress gave us. The good safety and health vendors out there, they can add value in different ways, and they can differentiate themselves from what OSHA can do. That's where their focus ought to be."

Pollack counters: "OSHA should focus on enforcement" and "get out of the areas of compliance assistance that are well-served by private industry."

Long simmering debate

"What OSHA should focus on" has been argued over since the day the agency opened its doors in 1970, and the heavy promotion of outreach and education activities in recent years has exacerbated the dispute beyond the vested interests of consultants and training vendors. This was clear from the responsesISHNreceived from professionals around the country.

Pros in industry generally welcome what one calls "a more appropriate, very reasonable, very professional" approach. "Since OSHA is the agency making all the rules, they should be required to explain themselves and offer assistance," says another.

Beating up non-compliant small businesses is not the answer, says Mark Hansen, CSP, immediate past president of the American Society of Safety Engineers. "We need to find ways to make industry want to do safety."

But in the other corner, skeptics such as Pollack argue that "many employers simply won't improve safety unless it is required."

"Aggressively enforcing standards will have significantly greater positive impact on the health and well-being of the workers of this country than being a consultative pussy cat," says Dr. Rick Fulwiler, CIH, a 40-year vet who headed Procter & Gamble's worldwide safety and health department before joining the consulting ranks.

Another CIH, Lisa Cullen, gets to the heart of the debate: "It's a question of balance," she says. "To assert OSHA has no business whatsoever" lending assistance "is extreme. It's a matter of how far OSHA should go."

For her part, Cullen believes OSHA has "absolutely" strayed too far from its enforcement mission. "Seems more like mission abandonment to me," says Bill Borwegen, safety and health director of the Service Employees International Union.

"Let the flaming begin," he jokes. Actually, it started before the ink dried on President Nixon's signature on the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The turf battle with training companies and some consultants is but the latest twist.