"A strong enforcement program underlies everything else we do," declared OSHA boss John Henshaw in a recent speech at the Alice Hamilton conference in Chicago.

Perhaps moved by the fiery spirit of Dr. Hamilton, one of the pioneers in bringing workplace health issues to national attention in the early 1900s, Henshaw used some of his strongest words to date to describe OSHA's use of the enforcement stick.

To back up those words, Henshaw said, "We pledged we'd do 36,400 inspections this year . . . the highest total in eight years . . . and we're on target to meet that goal."

OSHA will add another 1,300 inspections in 2003, said Henshaw.

Targeted inspections making use of OSHA's limited resources are making a difference, OSHA's chief declared. The agency fingered 13,000 sites that needed improvements in safety - sites with the highest injury and illness rates.

"Final numbers are not in yet . . . but so far . . . at nearly 75 percent of the workplaces we've inspected, we've found serious, repeat or willful violations. That means we're going to the right places . . . and we're delivering the right message . . . the safety and health of your employees is critical . . . and you need to change . . . Now!" stressed Henshaw.

"No company should wait for an OSHA inspection to take action to protect its employees. And employers that do are going to find themselves facing an average penalty of more than $900 per serious violation. That's not going to bankrupt anyone . . . but I hope it's significant enough to get the attention of the site manager or the CEO. It's higher than in past years," explained Henshaw.

"It's our job to make sure they get the message . . . the one I know we all agree on . . . this is not about money . . . it's about a safe workplace, about people . . .

"Our purpose is not to visit sites to collect money for the government. Our job is to create change where it is needed . . . to assure a safe workplace. We are developing strategies for dealing with recalcitrant employers," said Henshaw.

OSHA's top enforcer said he's frustrated by employers making the same safety mistakes over and over. "The violations we're citing are the same . . . Over the past four years, the very same violations have made our top five list each year - scaffolds, hazard communication, fall protection, respiratory protection and lockout/tagout."