Recently ISHN Editor Dave Johnson circulated an e-mail posing the questions of OSHA fatigue and what OSHA might be like in a Democratic administration. There is little doubt of what it might be like under a Republican administration.

I have read various surveys done by ISHN and the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) on what health and safety professionals want from the next administration, and there seems to be a divide between safety folks and industrial hygiene folks. To that I must say, what’s new? There is also an undercurrent of “be careful what you wish for, you might not get what you like.”

I sent Dave some of my thoughts and he challenged me to put together an article on my thoughts based on my experience in Washington circles. That includes seven years on OSHA’s National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), president of AIHA in 2001, as well as serving many years as Ford Motor Company’s health and safety manager.

My time in the health, safety and environmental field started several years before OSHA and EPA so my perspective is also based on what once was, but remember, this is only my opinion.

No pendulum swing

While it is true that the Bush administration has hampered OSHA and the EPA, I believe that simply changing administrations will not bring about a dramatic change in OSHA, EPA or other governmental agencies.

Much has changed since 2001 in the U.S. and world economy. Certainly many of the more hazardous manufacturing jobs have moved off shore, but there are more service and construction jobs with the same old and new hazards. Also, after eight years of the Bush administration, there are many more conservative judges within the Federal Court System.

Why the slowdown?

It is instructive to look back at the history of OSHA and EPA rulemaking to analyze why the rulemaking process, is not working. Many of the rules are based on consensus standards of the 1960s and early 1970s. Today there is decreased activity in the voluntary consensus standard arena. Part of the decreased activity can be traced to the rulemaking process, and the other part is probably due to the increased workload on a declining number of health, safety and environmental professionals on the staffs of major companies.

NIOSH also had a mission to identify hazards and to suggest potential standards to control them and that has also decreased. Further, much progress has been made in worker health and safety and perhaps the American public has bought as much health and safety as it views necessary at this time. Progress has often come based on worker blood, but remember, the memory of the American public is very short.

Again, looking back I conclude that the broken rulemaking process is not just based on developing and enforcing standards. Standards have been developed and languished for years based on comments and legal challenges of interested parities. Within the interested parties there are also subdivisions that do not agree.

Within business, large companies may be inclined to support certain standards as reasonable, but small business groups may vehemently oppose the same standards. Efforts to build consensus have not been effective. The failures of these efforts are based on many factors too numerous and controversial for this article.

Back to basics

I look at the future of OSHA in a Democratic administration as what is doable and what could have the most impact on worker health and safety. Certainly I would like a rebirth of the standards-setting process. I believe that many things, including ergonomics, still need to be tackled. In a perfect world I would like to see permissible exposure limits (PELs) updated annually and a workable ergonomics standard, among needed standards.

However, I think putting all our efforts into a simple safety and health program standard and developing meaningful partnerships between OSHA, companies and workers can best achieve progress.

Further, where unions represent workers, unions should be major participants in any partnership. Partnerships should contain a quid pro quo that encourages companies to have a vibrant health and safety staff and be based on mutually agreeable protocols that identify and control hazards. A safety and health program standard should include hazard identification, control measures based on engineering (only using personal protection as a temporary measure), and employee training.

A small window

To successfully achieve the progress needed at OSHA, consensus building must start now. Professional organizations and unions must reach out to the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), ORC (Organization Resources Counselors) Worldwide and other major business associations. I further believe that the window of opportunity will only be open for a short time. It is important to act now while it is clear that the country is looking for meaningful change.