It's time for an OSHA seal of approval
April 14, 2011
Occupational safety regulation needs to emerge from the 19th century concept that employers have to right to privately injure employees, and instead use the sunshine of modern public transparency to spotlight employer’s risk based safety performance. This is the Public’s Right To Know. The concept is that if safety performance can become an accepted part of how the public perceives and responds to any company doing business, this creates an incentive to manage occupational safety and health beyond that which OSHA can generate through direct regulation and enforcement. If the public is added as an active stakeholder in occupational safety and health performance it will “triangulate” the ongoing labor-management tug-of-war that has marked OSHA’s history since its inception, and many powerful and positive non-regulatory results can be created to significantly improve occupational safety in the United States and even the world.
Public participation would be generated using two main elements, internet transparency coupled with a safety brand icon. OSHA would be the natural entity to manage the creation and ownership of a nationally recognized occupational safety brand by creating an icon that any company or entity can use for their own marketing purposes, if they meet certain basic OSHA-specified criteria.
For the purposes of this discussion, I use the term “OSHA SAFE” for the brand icon. This brand and icon would be very similar to EPA’s now familiar “Energy Star” or the newer “Design for the Environment.” These EPA icons are widely recognized by the public as a brand to assess their consumer products as either energy efficient or composed of the safest chemicals in their class.
OSHA can get worker safety into the public eye by encouraging companies who to trade the right to use the OSHA Safe logo on their product and marketing by voluntarily meeting certain performance criteria set by OSHA. This would give the public the opportunity to assess at a glance, when comparing products from automobiles to toothpaste, which products are made by companies that have essentially “less worker pain and suffering” built into the product. This branding icon would be a voluntary free market incentive that aligns the company’s marketing and financial interests with those of their employees’ safety.
This is not a VPP, as the incentives are not related to enforcement or consultation. It more resembles OSHA’s SHARP program that currently exists to recognize small businesses that use OSHA consultation services to become quality safety performers. The differences are that again, offers of free consultation or reduced enforcement are not used as an incentive when the purpose is to engage the public in the process.
Reduced enforcement oversight is not much of a business incentive; it is actually more of an OSHA incentive. An “OSHA SAFE” type program would not be promoted as reduced enforcement oversight, or free consultation. The idea is to expand the universe of companies that voluntarily perform the actions OSHA believes are critical to quality safety performance not out of desire to avoid enforcement, but in order to connect with an engaged public that wants to reward the quality performer with improved business and because being a quality safety performer leads to improved business outcomes. It is simply a symbol of quality S&H performance.
OSHA can create an alignment between what business wants and what the public wants for its products: The public want products that are energy efficient, or use green chemistry, so why would they not want products made in OSHA SAFE workplaces? The public doesn’t care about lock out tag out procedures, but they do want their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers who go off to the workplace to return home intact.
If they feel they can contribute to that by recognizing OSHA SAFE companies by favoring their products and services, they will do so. Companies who gain the OSHA SAFE registration will be able to tout their safety performance along the lines of “our product has the OSHA SAFE label, our competitor’s product does not.”
Once this happens, companies will find a way to meet the qualifications without OSHA looking over their shoulder. They will shift their gaze to how the public perceives them, not OSHA. And I believe when the public understands that an OSHA SAFE product has “less pain and suffering” built into each unit, they will respond.I also believe that those who strongly embrace the “free market” concept that government regulators “must get out of the way of business” should also embrace this concept as well.
Any company executive mindful of their company position with the public will immediately recognize that something that aligns with a company’s marketing interests, something that improves the bottom line, and also results in better safety performance, should be embraced. Again, this is not about getting VPP recognition or anything like it (although VPP companies are likely to be good candidates for the icon.) This is about getting the public involved in wanting the companies they do business with to have good safety performance. This concept also translates into something that stock analysts could begin to factor into stock performance; that too, will develop the attention of management.
If OSHA believes additional business incentives would be useful to promote the OSHA SAFE brand it could use its position as a representative of the public and add immediate incentives. For example, if OSHA SAFE was added to the many other specific requirements for any company selling goods and services to the Federal government, the number of companies meeting the criteria would increase rapidly.
The most important element to achieve Public Right To Know is through employer transparency using the internet. This means regular and frequent posting of company or even location specific safety performance indicators or metrics on an OSHA based website accessible 24/7 to anyone in the world. Again, does the employer have a private right to injure or is there a public right to know?
This is not the posting of the local log containing personal and personnel information. It would be a set of safety-oriented indicators created for use on the internet, that include both non-identifiable summary accident and illness information along with other basic indicators that could include such metrics as hours of safety instruction per employee per year and number of full time equivalent personnel (either employees or consultants) performing occupational safety work including inspections and hazard correction, industrial hygiene or safety.
The first wave of posted information should be simple and effective in conveying performance without focusing on lost-time cases, but the exact content is not as important as the fact that it is there. All the metrics should also be rolled up into a single indicator, just like restaurants in California must post the public health score as a letter grade at their entrance. Those who would seek the OSHA SAFE icon would need agree to transparency standards and frequently post the specified metrics on the internet through an OSHA site set up for the purpose, but also any other internet site of their choice.
There is a new generation of employees currently entering the workforce, who all expect pertinent information to be available instantly to them on handheld devices connected to the internet. Posting safety performance indicators seems so intuitive to them; when I ask them, they are always puzzled why it is not that way. OSHA and the occupational safety world should address their needs beginning now, so that the Right To Know systems are robust in 20 years when this generation takes the helm of corporations and are EHS leaders.
One of the most overlooked aspects of the internet is that it is not simply a publishing outlet. It is a method for the public to assemble on its own for its own reasons, which are sometimes not able to be anticipated. Getting significant occupational safety information into the hands of the public will have many far reaching positive effects on national and local safety performance; exactly how that happens won’t be entirely clear until the information is there. For example, these indicators could be arranged to be easily sorted for geography (best in the City), industry type (best car company in America), time (best this quarter) or any other method the public will develop.
OSHA should, as it performs the government function of representing the public, support and uphold a public right to know by creating a voluntary platform like “OSHA SAFE” that also requires internet transparency. This seems to be a pure free market principle that should be attractive to proponents of getting government out of business’ way, as well as a method to provide the public with access to what they might need to know to make marketplace decisions. I think it applies equally to publicly held companies, government entities and anyone else doing business with any tax supported entity.
With public access to safety performance information, the public audience will continue to build itself and respond to the OSHA SAFE icon making it more and more effective as an incentive. News media will have more information to use and assess corporate and government performance. NGO’s will also be able to assess the information and create their own analyses. These are all strong drivers of good executive management performance independent of the regulatory arena.
The reason Public Right to Know is a powerful concept for the long-term protection of workers in the US, is that management will grasp that safety performance is not a private corporate function, but a public one, and they will manage safety to the highest standards they can accomplish. If OSHA can create an environment where managing safety is more of a public function, such it is currently the case with much financial, environmental and sustainability data, it will create an additional incentive to elevate the protection of workers to the top tier of management processes, far beyond whatever OSHA has been able to muster through enforcement and fines.