Living in a world beyond OSHA
May 11, 2000
Feeling vulnerable? Your department is viewed as overhead, and most of your costs relate to labor,making you an inviting target for accountants. Meanwhile, you're a victim of your own success: The more effective you are, the harder it is to justify your existence. "Why do we need to keep spending money on safety when our injuries are so far below the industry average?" asks the boss. You try to document a return on investment, but how do you prove safety training actually increases productivity? Many safety and health pros have lived with this sense of insecurity for years. Their out has been OSHA,there's a reason they said, "Our Savior Has Arrived" when the agency came on the scene in 1970. "We've always been viewed as a regulatory shield," says one pro. But now OSHA isn't the driving force it once was. What do you do when your shield isn't needed? "In the last ten years, I bet our 60 facilities haven't received $100,000 total in OSHA penalties," says an industrial hygienist. "We seldom get hit with a fine over $20,000, and OSHA will knock it down to $10,000. That's not going to get management's attention." Today, most businesses across the U.S. see OSHA as weak, muzzled,basically not an issue. Only small employers still seem intimidated. Republicans in Congress and powerful industry groups have effectively blocked new standards. OSHA's two regulatory priorities,setting rules for ergonomics and basic safety and health programs,are years from becoming law. Inspections, meanwhile, hover around 35,000 annually,half the number conducted in OSHA's go-go years of the 1970s. Complicating matters is the fact that injury and illness rates have never been better for many safety and health pros. Across U.S. industry, in 1996, (the most recent year reported) the total incidence rate of injuries and illnesses reached an all-time low,7.4 cases per 100 full-time workers,according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only seven percent of readers responding to Industrial Safety & Hygiene New's most recent 'White Paper' survey said their rates deteriorated in 1997. These rates are often the only measuring stick used by plant managers to assess safety and health activity. When rates are low, it's tempting for harried managers to cross safety off the long list of agenda items to worry about. Workers' compensation costs will get management's attention, too. But here again, good news is a mixed blessing. After escalating an average of 15 percent every year from 1985 to 1992, comp costs decreased three percent annually from 1992 to 1995. "Our workers' comp costs are just not that significant," says the industrial hygienist. "It's tough to convince managers to invest in safety and health when comp costs are running $7,000 to $10,000 a year. Especially when they need to hire people for production." So how do you convince managers to maintain or increase safety and health budgets when other priorities are more pressing, and no new standards loom on the horizon? The question may be less urgent at the moment because six straight years of economic growth in the 1990s have allowed many safety and health departments to be bankrolled without great scrutiny. But what happens when business slows, as it inevitably does, and the hard questions start coming? Living in a world beyond OSHA requires you to ask tough financial questions before someone else does. To deal with your fears and prejudices about business realities. To learn the language of accountants. And to perhaps think of safety and health work as you never have before. The remainder of this report offers five specific steps to help you survive and thrive, and three case studies show how savvy professionals are adjusting to safety and health's "new world order."