Safety representatives from ten labor unions have written OSHA chief John Henshaw expressing concerns with OSHA's recently announced Nursing Home National Emphasis Program (NEP).

OSHA is setting the bar too low for meaningful inspections, argue the unions. The first action inspectors take after entering the workplace is to recalculate the 2000 lost workday rate to make sure the employer calculated correctly. If the rate is below 8, then they calculate the 2001 rate. If both are below 8, only a records inspection is done.

"The inspector doesn't even look at the workplace to conduct a preliminary evaluation of working conditions," states the letter. "This is a waste of OSHA's resources to not do even a limited inspection. In a relatively short time, an inspector could determine, for example, whether safe needles or lifting equipment are in use, whether there are obvious ergonomic problems like beds on the floor or whether underreporting is suspected."

By not inspecting a facility that may have as much as twice the injury rate of most businesses, OSHA sends a bad message to the employer that they have "passed" because their injury rate was "low," the unions protest.

Also, the lost workday rate is "highly prone to error and falsification," according to the letter. "Nursing home workers often relate to us that many are afraid to report musculoskeletal injuries because they fear being punished for not using the lifting equipment. The reason the equipment was not used is that the facility is understaffed and the workers are too rushed to fulfill their obligations to wait until a mechanical lift becomes available," the letter states.

Another issue: "We are concerned about OSHA's policy to discontinue ergonomics inspections at nursing homes which are part of companies with multiple facilities if six previous inspections at a company's facilities have resulted in no citations or hazard alert letters," states the letter, as long as the inspector has verified that a corporate policy to reduce ergonomic hazards is being implemented.

Finally, the unions claim they have "little faith that absent a compliance directive," inspectors will have the tools, confidence or authority needed to take any enforcement action regarding workplace violence protections.