…regulatory bodies, like the people who comprise them, have a marked life cycle. In youth, they are vigorous, aggressive, evangelistic, and even intolerant. Later they mellow, and in old age — after a matter of ten or fifteen years — they become, with some exceptions, either an arm of the industry they are regulating or senile.

John Kenneth Galbraith, Ph.D., “The Great Crash, 1929,” published originally in 1955

Could it be the venerable good doctor, a titan of economics, possessed the prescience to be describing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration 16 years before it began operation in 1971? And more importantly, could he have been explaining why so many occupational safety and health professionals today are disengaged from OSHA?

The profession’s disconnect from OSHA is palpable, almost raw with frustration. “Leave me the hell alone and let me do what I know how to do,” emailed a pro with almost four decades in the field. He laments the agency’s “misleading and often confusing direction” in recent years, and the lack of any significant regulatory agenda items “or public outcries to fix what may not be broken.”

“OSHA is almost 39 years old now” writes Tom Lawrence, whose safety and health career pre-dates the birth of the agency, in an email to us. “Politics in abundance and budgets in scarcity. Potential for significant change? Not likely.”

It’s time to cut the ties that have bound professionals to Washington for almost 40 years, argues Lawrence, and press ahead with innovation and resourceful not in abundance inside the beltway.

Who’s in charge here?

Or as American Industrial Hygiene Association Director of Government Affairs Aaron Trippler recently wrote in his newsletter: “Many of those who live and work here, including yours truly, also shake our head when we see Congress and the agencies attempt to do the work of governing.” Trippler went on to describe the consultant hired by OSHA who worked for 27 months, ending in mid-2008. His fee: $572,946 billed for labor and $108,434 in compensation for his commuting costs. “This was more pay than that of the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, the Secretary of Labor, the Vice President of the U.S., or any member of Congress. Who in the heck is in charge?” asks Trippler.

That confusion, in terms of OSHA’s management, is the one issue regarding the agency labor and business camps both can agree on. But that’s as far as any consensus goes. Borrowing from Galbraith’s depiction of a federal regulator, labor will argue the agency has devolved into an arm of the industry it regulates. Numerous businesses look at OSHA’s actions or inaction and see bureaucratic senility.

An agency evolves

OSHA’s life cycle can be traced in a way that parallels Galbraith’s evolutionary stages. First, in its youthful heyday of the 1970s, the agency was vigorous and aggressive with inspections and standards-setting. After a bureaucratic start-up phase, committed health and safety experts led OSHA — Dr. Mort Corn (1975-1977) and Dr. Eula Bingham (1976 – 1980). Dr. Bingham, the most fervent regulator and activist agency head ever, was evangelical in her endeavors to protect workers. Meanwhile, a growing number of employers, employer associations, and Republican politicians found OSHA’s actions increasingly “intolerant.”

Surprisingly, the agency did not “mellow” during the 1980s Reagan years and the term of President George H.W. Bush (1988-1992). “I remember the ‘80s and early ‘90s when we saw a flurry of new standards — hazard communication, respiratory protection, lockout-tagout, process safety management — and thought that OSHA had a decent handle on driving safety improvements at the national level,” writes Jeff LaBelle, a safety and risk assessment manager, in an email to us. “Since then we’ve seen much too little and much too late.”

Ironically, the mellowing and winding-down occurred during a Democratic regime, the two terms of President Clinton (1992-2000). It was the vision of Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore that a more mature OSHA would reinvent itself as a customer-focused, problem-solving partner with industry. In this context, OSHA’s much ballyhooed ergonomics standard, rushed out the door mere days after Gore lost the 2000 election, could be considered a mid-life crisis binge.

The “much too little and much too late” phase of OSHA’s evolution, which critics peg from 1992 until the present, could be interpreted, using Galbraith’s life cycle of a regulator, as the disorientation and cognitive failures that accompany aging. But although OSHA chiefs Joe Dear, Charles Jeffress and John Henshaw during that time were attacked on many counts, senility never came up; all were in their prime when at the agency. Critics contend that as OSHA has aged, it has become more than ever an arm of the industry it regulates. Ergo, the never-ending announcements of industry alliances in recent years. And, to be sure, a fantastically rich web site with deep resources and “tools” to help businesses.

Life on the beach?

So what have we here in 2009?

Will OSHA continue to slumber in what Galbraith would ascribe as its sunset years? Overworked and under-staffed safety and health professionals in industry are not of a mind to wake the agency and confront possibly a slew of new standards. That’s not going to happen anyway, not with an army of attorneys at the disposal of the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

What cannot be allowed to happen is for OSHA to continue to drift listlessly in its old (by Galbraith’s definition) age. Big business is global, with its workers at risk around the world and up and down supply chains, but OSHA is not an energetic global regulatory thought-leader. It must be.

And small business, which still dominates the domestic workplace landscape, cannot continue to put workers at risk, increasingly non-English speaking employees, through ignorance, lack of resources, or knowing non-compliance.

In this economy, retirees return to work and workers put off retirement. Old age ain’t what it used to be. Yes, there’s much talk of the graying of OSHA, of the coming wave of retirements. Still, hundreds if not thousands of careerists at OSHA aren’t ready to cash it in. They need strong, vibrant leadership. And here in 2009, when OSHA needs direction and vision, the safety and health profession can’t be caught “decoupling” and leaving the agency to close its eyes and stretch out on a beach chair somewhere.