OSHA“We were up in a customer focus group in Milwaukee not long ago. We had companies there from Fortune 100 to mom and pops,” said the VP of safety for a major distributor. “I’d say seven out of ten had had recent brushes with OSHA. So OSHA is still a big driver of sales, no doubt about it.”

It’s been fashionable to write off OSHA in recent years. The toothless agency. The rusted out standards mill. Off the radar screen of U.S. business.

Not so, say vendors here at the 2013 NSC Congress & Expo. Especially in smaller plants without a full-time safety manager, OSHA regs often go unknown or not understood. “One of my customers, I asked, how long have you had the safety job. She said about four months. I’m from HR, I don’t know this stuff. And I don’t have time for this crap.”

Are we time tripping back to the 1970s, or prehistoric times before OSHA?

No, it’s simply the vast silent majority of businesses in the U.S., small in size and payroll, trying to squeeze out a decent profit. And has always been the case, most of these companies have little or no in-house safety expertise. Certainly in this sluggo economy they are not going to be investing more than they must in safety. And they “get” when told by a safety sales rep that they need LOTO protection or a certain type of gloves, that if they ignore the pertinent OSHA reg there could be trouble down the road.

Even if OSHA inspects few small businesses, the threat is there. And it turns out the threat still matters.

Large multinationals like ExxonMobil and P&G and BP get the press for their sophisticated management issues that tackle safety problems far beyond what OSHA asks for. But in fact, the number of firms that truly are “beyond compliance” is a very small, elite, deep-pocketed, culture-enriched group.

“I’d say 50% of our customers are not at this point in compliance with the GHS training requirements, and the deadline is two months away,” said another distributor safety sales specialist. “They either don’t know about it, or they don’t understand it.”

With the economy still crawling along and companies cutting costs everywhere to survive, it seems there will still be a large, mostly ignored, population of businesses that will decide to roll the dice when it comes to safety… until they hear OSHA’s footsteps.