On February 24, 2003, OSHA chief John Henshaw sent a letter to more than 14,000 workplaces covered under federal OSHA that had the highest injury and illness rates in 2001. This annual alert letter has been a standard practice by OSHA for several years.

What gets you on the list? OSHA surveyed 93,000 employers last year and analyzed their 2001 data. Operations reporting six or more injuries or illnesses resulting in lost workdays or restricted activity for every 100 full-time workers (more than double the national average) were deemed high-hazard sites, and received letters.

These aren't necessarily warnings. Not every site will be inspected. OSHA puts a positive spin on the notifications, offering suggestions and stating that "OSHA recognizes that your elevated rate does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest in safety and health." There is a hint of embarrassment. "A list of all the employers receiving this letter will be available from the OSHA home page," the letter states.

Workplaces put on notice are encouraged to improve performance by seeking help from experts. This could mean hiring an outside safety and health consultant, talking with the workplace's insurance carrier, contacting the state workers' compensation agency, or requesting assistance from OSHA's onsite consultation program.

Henshaw says the letter raises awareness among employers and provides a "golden opportunity" to take steps to reduce high rates. If your workplace received the letter - or if your workplace has a lost-workday or restricted case rate exceeding six per 100 employees (2001 data) but you weren't part of the survey - exactly what are these golden opportunities that you should seek? Here are nine suggestions:

1) Get in the loop

The OSHA letter, sent to a company executive, should have trickled down to affected safety and health pros by now. If you haven't heard about the letter, and you know that your workplace was on the list (see OSHA's Web site), follow the chain-of-command upward to learn if any management actions are planned. Use this opportunity to stay in the management loop. If you lucked out and your workplace had more than six lost-workday cases per 100 employees - but you weren't surveyed by OSHA - then bring management into the loop of the workplace's potential ranking. Use this opportunity to raise awareness for better safety and health actions.

2) Be part of the solution

Staying in the management loop gives you a chance to suggest ways to reduce high injury and illness rates. It also gets you face time with key decision-makers. Use this opportunity to make sure your ideas for safety and health improvements are included in any management plan of action.

3) Shop for bargains

Voice support for OSHA's advice that employers seek expert safety and health assistance. The recession is taking its toll on outside safety and health consultants, and this might be an opportunity for your employer. Certified safety professionals (CSP) and certified industrial hygienists (CIH) who might have been too busy or too expensive to work on standard safety and health problems or activities in the past, may now be available at bargain prices. Find the best help your employer can afford.

4) Look for a long-term fix

A CSP or CIH is often better able to identify and offer solutions to root causes of injury or illness. People with limited training in safety and health often use causal chain logic to spot and treat injury/illness concerns. Here's an example: After reviewing injury and illness logs, it's concluded that most sprains/strains come from simply lifting heavy parts, and handling lighter parts will solve the problem. A CSP or CIH could determine that the weight of the part is not the problem, but how the part is lifted or held (loose fitting gloves may result in a greater holding force that increases the chance for injury). Pick the brain of experts.

5) Pool resources

OSHA's list of workplaces with highest injury and illness rates is in a database format that can be moved into Microsoft ExcelR and similar spreadsheets. From there it's easy to sort the list by location (state, city, or zip code) or by Standard Industrial Classification (SIC). Sorting may put many workplaces in the same boat with similar objectives. For example, more than 100 workplaces in Cleveland, Ohio, are on the list. Each of these employers should have a similar objective to reduce injury and illness rates.

The sort provides many opportunities for employers to pool resources. Employers on the list can use the sort to target and arrange for group training. One employer alone might not be able to afford to bring in top talent to train the organization in how to implement a safety and health management system, but a group could split the cost.

The opportunity for pooled resources and targeted groups may entice consultants, safety product suppliers, and local safety and health organizations to provide a more focused service. As long as antitrust laws are not being violated, asking consultants, safety product suppliers, or other safety and health services to provide a group discount might be prudent.

6) Take the lead

Someone has the chance to take the lead and form an ad hoc group. Is that you? You can do it without putting everything on your shoulders. This can be a good time to showcase your organizational or managerial skills. The more you lead, the better able you are to direct what gets done. Use this opportunity to focus your workplace on reducing injuries and illnesses.

7) Find the silver lining

Your employer won't be exactly pleased to be on a "worst list." Acknowledge that safety and health problems exist, but stress that you are the one to solve these problems. Show that you are a valuable employee. Your employer might provide more support for safety now to avoid getting on the list again. Show that you know how to get and keep the company off the worst list.

8) Take due credit

If your employer didn't make the list of workplaces with the highest injury and illness rates because you've helped ensure good safety and health performance, take due credit for it.

Inform your employer about the list. Use it as a deterrent to avoid complacency and to seek continual support for safety and health improvement. Note if your competition is on the list. Brag a little if you've bested the competition in this area. Don't overdo it, but don't let this opportunity pass by unnoticed.

9) Keep at it

Injury and illness performance at workplaces has significantly improved nationwide in the past decade; we sit at record low averages now. But average is a relative term. An average injury and illness rate today could be a high average a few years from now. Continual improvement in safety and health performance is needed to keep off OSHA's list of workplaces with the highest injury and illness rates.