2010 ushers in new opportunity for OSHA to gain respect

[tweetmeme] As 2009 winds down, there will undoubtedly be numerous count downs for the ‘best of 2009’ or ‘worst of 2009’ or maybe even ‘best of the worst of 2009″.  I will spare you that here.  However, I do want to share some insights into 2010 and what I think a couple key issues are going to be.

It’s no secret that occupational injuries and fatalities continued to decrease in 2009, off  their 2007 high water mark, however OSHA administrators repeatedly voiced their doubts as to the accuracy of those numbers.  OSHA has already announced that it will emphasize recordkeeping in 2010.  So it doesn’t require much of a leap to suggest that this means that OSHA compliance officers will be taking more than just a casual glance at employers 300/301 logs this year.  Beyond recordkeeping, OSHA has also announced its intention to hire 120+ compliance officers in 2010.  Where these positions will be deployed will say a lot about OSHA’s priorities in 2010.  Considering there are millions of work places in America, adding 120 new compliance officers doesn’t seem to be much.

The one big issue in 2010, in my opinion, will be whether or not Congress has the belly to seriously consider expanding OSHA’s reach into the public sector (state and local employees)  through passage of the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R 2067 and S.1580) or (PAWA).  Although the bill(s) has been publicly endorsed by most labor organizations, as well as the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) recent whispers seem to indicate that this will be dropped from the final version of the bill.  This would be a huge mistake!  Afterall, more than 8 million American’s go to work everyday without basic safety and health requirements in place to help ensure their safe return home at night, simply because they work for state or local governments.  Private sector employees are covered, Federal employees are covered, military personnel are covered, so why are state and local government workers not covered? 

The opposition to this issue usually centers on ideological grounds (which I won’t touch with this blog post), the high cost of implementation, and declining worker injury/fatality statistics.   However, when you consider that OSHA’s total budget in 2009 was $500M+ and other Federal programs such as the ‘cash for clunkers’ was over $2 billion last year, this doesn’t seem to a real obstacle.  Sadly, we do live  in a country that doesn’t seem to even notice the cost until price tags start using the word “trillion”.   As for the declining injury/fatality statistics, I believe I have covered that already.

There are other important issues in play with the PAWA, including the possibility of raising citation dollar amounts and increasing criminal fines for violations.  The monetary increase is long overdue.  OSHA currently hands out a citation with a paltry fine amount, along side of a letter to the employer, that basically says OSHA will be happy to reduce this amount by up to 60% if they participate in an informal hearing and promise to be good and oh, by the way, OSHA will also entertain reducing the penalty status as well, thus rendering the citation ineffective in serving it’s purpose of influencing future behavior.  Sort of like cutting off its nose in spite of its face.   Afterall if I knew that a judge would decrease a traffic violation by 60% with a simple promise of good behavior, I think I wouldn’t be too inclined to respect traffic laws for very long.  

Yes, yes…I hear you, and you are correct sometimes OSHA gets a burr under its saddle and really goes after an employer (see BP Texas City), but those ‘proposed penalties’ are to grab news headlines.  Employers rarely pay ‘proposed penalties’ amount.  Think of it as paying sticker price for a new car.  It just doesn’t work that way.  If OSHA is trying to influence future behavior of employers through the use of citations,  they need citation amounts that will be taken seriously.  Especially when you consider what’s at stake…the lives of American workers.  Maybe a family member or friend of yours!

There are several other issues that could be addressed in 2010, including updating Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) which is long overdue.   Also a new combustible dust standard.  Of course you could argue that OSHA isn’t effectively enforcing what’s on the books now, so why would a new standard help.

If Congress decides to help OSHA by giving them the tools they need to effectively enforce occupational safety and health regulations in 2010, OSHA may actually grow into a full-blown agency and finally get the respect it deserves.  Of course a lot of this hangs in the balance, and not all of it is in the hands of Congress.  OSHA must also clean up its act, in order to be viewed by business a force for good in terms of worker safety.  All too often personalities seem to influence the citation process, and regulations aren’t properly enforced, both to the benefit and detriment of employers.  This inconsistent approach leaves a bad taste in the mouths of employers.  Especially small businesses.  2010 will present opportunities, afterall hope springs eternal. 

Congress has ability to help OSHA strike a balance and start effectively working with employers to bring about real change in behavior or it can let OSHA continue to be irrelevent.

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