One of the questions I am constantly asked is “why can’t OSHA get anything done?”
A fair question with a difficult answer.
It would be easy to simply respond that OSHA is subject to a lot of politics, and I mean a lot of politics. It would also be easy to simply answer that it depends on who asked the question, and more importantly, when they asked it.
Let me explain.
When the Democrats are in control of the White House, therefore OSHA, it seems inevitable that industry and/or business in general will complain that OSHA is too focused on enforcement. When the reverse is true and the Republicans control the White House, and therefore OSHA, it is inevitable that labor will complain that OSHA is too focused on compliance assistance and allowing injuries and illness to increase in the workplace. Either way, politicians and others can usually twist the words to fit whatever scenario they wish to address.
Yes, you can look at numbers end on end to prove or disprove success or failure at OSHA. But let’s throw all of this out the window and look at the success of the agency from a different point of view. Not by enforcement or compliance assistance but by whether or not, in the long term, workers and others are protected from workplace hazards.
In my opinion, the answer is a resounding “yes” and for different reasons than most would think.
Step back and think about it. In the early ‘90s OSHA proposed an indoor air quality standard to address the issue of health hazards posed by occupational exposure to tobacco smoke. The agency received in excess of 100,000 comments on the proposed standard and in 1994 the standard was withdrawn. It was obvious at the time that it was not possible to enact such a standard. So – was the attempt by OSHA a failure?
Not in my opinion!
OSHA may have failed to enact a standard but succeeded nonetheless. Think about it. Since 1994 how many employers, both public and private, took it upon themselves to address this issue? It has to number in the hundreds of thousands. In other words, the proposed standard was withdrawn but the issue was addressed. Perhaps not to the satisfaction of everyone but I would say our workplaces and even our public areas are much safer from tobacco smoke today than pre-1994.
Another example. Ergonomics.
In November of 2000 just prior to the Clinton Administration leaving town, OSHA published a final rule on an ergonomics program. When the Bush Administration took control of the White House and Congress in January of 2001, Congress overthrew this standard and it has not appeared in any future efforts from the agency. Did OSHA fail with this issue? Again, depends on who you talk to but in my opinion OSHA did not fail.
Why? Again, stop and think about it.
I would venture to guess that prior to the effort to enact this ergonomics rule that upwards of 90 percent of workers and others had never heard the term “ergonomics.” They may have known about the problems of ergonomics but no one had ever used this term nor specifically addressed the issue. Today, nearly everyone knows what ergonomics is and what it means. Not only that, but again think of the hundreds of thousands of employers, both public and private, who have addressed this issue on their own. The workplace is obviously safer ergonomically than prior to the ergonomics proposed rule.
I understand there will be many who disagree with my views on this, but the bottom line is that OSHA has been very successful, not only when it enacts or enforces a standard or rule or provides compliance assistance but sometimes just by taking a look at the issue and making everyone aware.
This “educational” effort provided to workers, employers and others is hard to measure. And I’m sure one could come up with many more such success stories. Bottom line – you can agree or disagree whether or not the agency has been out of touch with employers or workers but success can found in many different ways. Let’s hope these efforts can be measured in the same way in the future.
Besides, I’m getting a little tired of a call one day complaining that OSHA is over-regulating and the next day receive a call that OSHA isn’t doing enough.