By the end of this month, OSHA and every other federal agency will give the Office of Management and Budget a strategic plan detailing goals for at least the next five years. The plans will then be turned over to Congress, which, in theory, will use them to judge how well each agency performs.

You can say this exercise attempts to answer the question: "What exactly do all those people in Washington do?" It comes out of the Government Performance and Results Act, which was signed into law in 1993 to try to quell the public's growing dissatisfaction with the federal bureaucracy. No arm of the government has had its effectiveness, or existence, questioned more than OSHA, and the agency has spent the past 18 months drawing up a six-year plan to show its worth and improve its image. But will anyone-inside or outside OSHA-take it seriously? Bureaucratic documents, like General MacArthur said of old soldiers, tend to just fade away. But this is different, says OSHA press spokesman Stephen Gaskill. "We are committing publicly and in writing to Congress and the president our goals. It's easy to be cynical about it, but the process forces us to seriously review the way we work and the mission of the agency."

Test of leadership

Like any strategic plan put together for a business, its credibility rests with the CEO. In OSHA's case, this means the yet-to-be-named administrator to replace Joe Dear, who left in January. That person is widely assumed to be Charles Jeffress, who currently runs North Carolina's state OSHA program. Jeffress is expected to replace acting administrator Greg Watchman by October or November, and OSHA-watchers say an early test of Jeffress's effectiveness will be how well he inspires the troops to get behind the plan's broad goals and specific objectives (see sidebar).

Another unknown at this point is how seriously Congress will take the document. In theory, OSHA's budget could be tied to how well it meets its goals.

If that kind of hammer is used, you can be sure the plan won't gather dust in the federal archives. Right now, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are quite interested in seeing if regulators can deliver on their promises, but a lot can change in the next five years.

In the short run, you can expect Jeffress or whoever leads OSHA to be questioned on the agency's progress in improving injury rates, responding to emergencies, and documenting the benefits of new standards.

Hitting home

And pay attention-the plan might put you under more OSHA scrutiny if your workplace is in one of the five industries OSHA targets for injury reductions, or if your workplace hazards include one of the three types of injuries or illnesses OSHA aims to reduce. Those targets will be named probably next year, after the agency reviews Bureau of Labor Statistics data and gets feedback from field inspectors. Also, watch what happens if OSHA names cumulative trauma disorders as one of its targeted hazards. Right now Republicans in Congress oppose efforts to set an ergonomics standard. To which the OSHA chief could counter: "But sirs, to reach one of our goals required by your own law we need this standard." Some Washington observers hope long-term goals take politics out of OSHA affairs. Just as easily they could become fodder for competing agendas.

Sidebar: Washington report

Promises, Promises

At press time the strategic plan was still in a draft form subject to change, but here are 25 objectives OSHA aims to accomplish in the next six years:

Reduce injuries, illnesses and fatalities

  • Three of the most prevalent types of workplace injuries and illnesses will be reduced by 20 percent by fiscal year 2002 (beginning October, 2001).
  • Injury/illness rates in at least five high-hazard industries will drop 20 percent by 2002. ·
  • Total fatalities in the construction industry will decrease by 20 percent by 2002. ·
  • Injury and illness rates will be reduced by 20 percent in at least 100,000 workplaces where OSHA conducts an inspection, special emphasis program, outreach training, or other intervention (by 2002). ·
  • Fatalities, injuries, or illnesses will be reduced by 20 percent-or the rate of industry compliance will increase 20 percent-within four years of the effective date of significant new rules.

Improve customer service

  • 95 percent of fatalities and catastrophes will be inspected within one working day (by 2002). ·
  • Worker complaints will be investigated within one working day, or an on-site inspection will be conducted within five working days (by 2002). ·
  • 80 percent of all worker complaints and referrals will be resolved within 20 working days after notifying the employer (by 2002). ·
  • 75 percent of all whistleblower cases will be resolved within 90 days (by 2002). ·
  • 95 percent of requests for information will be handled within three working days (by 2002).

    Emphasize the "new OSHA"

    • Cooperative Compliance Programs (similar to the Maine 200 program) will be standardized and fully implemented in all federal enforcement states (by fiscal year 2000). ·
    • All OSHA field offices will complete training in the ways of the "new OSHA" (by 2000).

      Promote safety and health programs

      50 percent of employers who are targeted for or request an OSHA intervention will have either an effective safety and health program or have significantly improved their existing program (by 2002).

      Easier information access

      • All standards, regulations, and reference materials will be available from the OSHA home page on the Internet (by fiscal year 1998). ·
      • A referral clearinghouse for disseminating occupational safety and health information will be set up (by fiscal year 1999). ·
      • All new OSHA standards, guidelines, emphasis programs, and other initiatives will have a targeted outreach plan (by 1998).

      Get workers involved

      • A worker involvement component will be included in all proposed OSHA regulations and initiatives. ·
      • Training for workers and employers to bring about effective worker involvement will be developed and delivered.

      Keep customers satisfied

      • 75 percent of employers and workers will rate OSHA plain language standards as readable and understandable. ·
      • 90 percent of small business employers and workers receiving OSHA's assistance will rate their experience as useful. ·
      • 95 percent of stakeholders and partners will rate their involvement in OSHA's stakeholder/partnership process as positive (by 2002). ·
      • 80 percent of employers and workers interacting with OSHA will rate OSHA's staff's professionalism, competence, and knowledge as satisfactory (by 2000).

      Stay current

      · The nation's safety and health priorities will be updated through the priority planning process (by 2002).

      Account for performance

      • Information systems needed to collect data to evaluate OSHA's performance will be implemented (by 2002). ·
      • A revised performance appraisal system will link staff competencies and performance to OSHA's performance plan results (by 1999).