They came early on an cold, wet December morning to hear OSHA's new boss speak at length for really the first time on what he wants to do with the agency. Normally, 10 to 20 faithful followers of OSHA affairs--a small clique of Washington lobbyists and lawyers--come to the Department of Labor for meetings of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health. But for this meeting, close to 50 people took up most of the available seats in Room N3437 to hear a "dialog, an exchange of views," as it was billed, between the advisory committee and Charles Jeffress, who had been sworn in as assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health almost exactly one month earlier.

"You need to know who I am, how I like to work with folks, and the direction I'd like to see the agency move in," a smiling, confident Jeffress told the committee. With a disarming soft twang and a penchant for addressing groups as "y'all," the North Carolinian went on to describe himself as a manager, not a technical safety and health expert.

"I couldn't make an OSHA inspection if I had to," he chuckled.

Instead, he relies on his staff's "good judgment" and puts his energies into making organizations work and move forward, he said. A "big believer" in strategic planning, Jeffress said he was "delighted" that OSHA's recently issued five-year plan specifically set goals for reducing common injuries and accident rates in high-hazard industries.

Call for leadership

Later in the meeting, committee member Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers of America, came back to Jeffress's opening remarks. "You were more than a manager in North Carolina," he said, referring to Jeffress's role in strengthening the state's OSHA program after a flash fire in a rural chicken processing operation killed 25 workers and unleashed a storm of protest. "You were a leader, and OSHA needs to be led. We desperately need leadership at OSHA."

Other committee members--representatives from industry, labor groups, and academia--seconded Wright's opinion. "I'm struck by how you're looking to the assistant secretary to be the spokesman for the national agenda," said Jeffress. "That's a big charge. I'll need your help."

Listen and learning

After only a month on the job, Jeffress told the committee he didn't pretend to know the issues, and he was giving himself until the first of the year to "listen and learn." During a break in the meeting, he told Industrial Safety & Hygiene News that getting out to field officers and talking with inspectors was a priority during his start-up phase. The night before the meeting he had returned from a visit to OSHA's Tampa, Fla., area office.

"The field people make it happen," he said, referring to their influence in meeting the agency's injury reduction goals, and also in shaping OSHA's public image. "I've got to build up their confidence in me."

Despite Jeffress's reserve at the NACOSH meeting--most of the time was spent with committee members going around the table introducing themselves and their key concerns while Jeffress jotted notes and asked occasional questions--a close listening gave observers a fair idea of what the man wants to accomplish, and his style for getting things done. Here's his stance on some key standards:

  • Safety and health program requirements It's a "fundamental responsibility" for employers to have safety and health programs, said Jeffress. "I'm absolutely convinced they make a difference." His conviction comes from his experience in North Carolina, where he said inspectors found workplaces with the highest injury and illness rates most always lacked programs with management leadership and employee involvement. "I'll push hard for (a standard)," he said.

    Later in the meeting, Marthe Kent, OSHA's director of regulatory analysis, told the committee that requirements would be forwarded to the Office of Management and Budget for review this summer so that a formal proposal could be published in September.

  • Ergonomics "I'll push for an ergonomics standard," Jeffress said. The first step is to define the scope of the standard, what industries, hazards, or at-risk work populations should be covered, he added.

    Kent reinforced her boss's comments. "We are very serious about this. There are timelines and deadlines that are terrifying," she joked. Business and labor groups will come to Washington this month for a "stakeholder" meeting where OSHA will circulate what Kent described as talking points and ideas for a standard--no regulatory text.

  • Recordkeeping Proposed revisions for how employers log job-related injuries and illnesses "have been kicking around" the agency for quite a while, said Jeffress. "It's important to get them out early in 1998 so they can be used in 1999," he said.

    The recordkeeping standard "is receiving a major push in the agency thanks to Charles," said Kent. "He came in and made it clear that, 'This is important to me.' So it's moved up as a priority." Kent expects the rule to go to OMB this spring and be released in time for use by safety and health professionals in 1999.

  • Respiratory protection At press time, final revisions to requirements for how to run a respiratory protection program were scheduled to be released before the end of the year. One source says OSHA wanted to do some further tinkering with the standard, but Jeffress said he wanted it published.

  • Personal protective equipment During a break in the meeting, Jeffress called the recent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission ruling that employers are not required to pay for employees' PPE "a terrible decision." He believes a standard is needed to legally assert employers' responsibilities (a move he made in North Carolina).

    Kent said the issue of who pays for PPE is getting serious attention at the agency due to Jeffress's interest, and will probably be put on a fast track for regulation.

    Jeffress's comments, along with Kent's remarks about her new boss, made it clear he wants action on the standards front. His style seems straight-on when dealing with issues and people. "I want you to give me advice directly, not through third parties," he told committee members. "I want to hear it from you."

Reading between the lines

Jeffress's morning with the NACOSH committee was notable also for what was not said. His only reference to rules enforcement came when he endorsed the national inspection targeting program OSHA unveiled in late November. And not once did he mention "the new OSHA" or "reinvention programs," favorite phrases used by his predecessor Joe Dear when describing his vision of a customer-friendly agency for the '90s.

Jeffress sees the need for changes: He said inspectors need training to better evaluate so-called "soft" safety management issues like executive leadership and employee involvement, to go along with their recommendations for correcting physical hazards. But he seems less comfortable with grand visions for OSHA, and more interested in getting new programs and standards out the door.

Time will tell how far Jeffress can push ahead with many of the issues confronting OSHA, particularly controversial ones like standards on ergonomics and safety and health programs. He's new to the political fights that have bogged down these efforts, and veteran OSHA watchers wonder if his battle-weary deputies in the front office, his cautious boss, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, and a White House that seems content to ride high in the polls and not make waves share his energy and enthusiasm.