Where is OSHA headed? OSHA chief David Michaels outlines the agency’s new regulatory and enforcement agenda.
“We’ve accelerated our push to make fundamental changes in the way employers and workers cooperate to secure safe workplaces,” says Dr. Michaels, “and we are doing this through an aggressive regulatory agenda.”
The motto for OSHA’s new agenda is “plan, prevent, and protect.” This motto, says Michaels, is echoed in a proposed OSHA standard that would require employers to implement an Injury and Illness Prevention Program tailored to the actual hazards in their workplaces.
“Instead of waiting for an OSHA inspection or a workplace tragedy to address workplace hazards,” Michaels explains, “employers would be required to create a plan for identifying and remediating hazards, and then implement this plan.”
Just having a safety plan filed in a drawer or on corporate computers isn’t enough, however.
“An effective injury and illness prevention program requires management leadership and worker participation, hazard assessment and abatement, setting goals, and continual improvement,” according to Michaels.
“An effective program doesn’t simply address individual problems; it fosters a culture of workplace safety and health based on prevention—and prevention must be part of the normal, everyday culture for every job, every workplace, every company, every manager and every employer.”
Under the proposed new standard, workers would have a greater voice in workplace safety as well. “Workers would participate in developing and implementing the safety and health plan, and have a role in evaluating the plan’s effectiveness in achieving compliance.”
Other Key Issues
Among other issues involving proposed future OSHA action, Michaels stresses:
Accurate reporting. Inspectors will be looking carefully at employer records to ensure accuracy and compliance. They’ll also be examining safety incentive programs, which Michaels says in many cases are doing more harm than good by creating incentives to conceal worker injuries. OSHA inspectors will be scrutinizing incentive programs in the future to ensure that they aren’t discouraging workers from reporting injuries and illnesses. “If an injury isn’t reported,” Michaels maintains, “the safety professional—you—cannot investigate the incident and nothing can be learned from it.”
Increasing penalties. To make enforcement more effective, Michaels says OSHA needs more inspectors and “more power to penalize employers who ignore their legal and moral responsibilities.” He believes that as things stand now OSHA’s powers to penalize employers are too weak.
Congressional action. The Protecting America’s Workers Act, now under consideration in Congress, would give OSHA the power to:
- Raising the ceiling on OSHA fines
- Increasing criminal penalties and criminal liability for employers who knowingly endanger workers
- Expanding the rights of workers’
- Strengthening whistleblower protections
Updating PELs. Many of the permissible exposure limits now in effect are based on 1950s-era science that no longer applies to 21st century workplaces, according to Michaels. “Thousands of new and potentially hazardous chemicals have been created in the last half-century and we haven’t kept up. We don’t have enough effective standards for employers or their workers. This has to change.”
Revising requirements. OSHA has proposed a rule to revise and remove outdated, duplicative, or inconsistent requirements. The Standards Improvement Project (SIP) III is designed to help keep standards current and help employers better understand regulatory duties.
Hard-to-reach workers. OSHA is also focusing on at-risk workers who speak little or no English. Michaels says: “We are reminding employers to comply with our requirement that they must present information about workers’ rights, safety and health training materials, information and instructions in a language that their workers can understand. I issued a directive to OSHA inspectors to check for this during site visits to be sure that employers are complying.”
Employer Participation Urged
Michaels urges safety professionals to participate in the changing regulatory and enforcement environment by:
- Speaking up at stakeholder meetings
- Participate when OSHA holds Web chats and sending in your thoughts when OSHA issues requests for information
- Speaking up when Congress proposes legislation that you like–or don’t like–and making your experience and your expertise count not only in your workplace but in Washington
- Getting involved in the rulemaking process
- Promoting prevention through injury and illness prevention programs, process safety management, training and education, and the free service provided in every state through OSHA’s On-site Consultation Program
Clearly, if OSHA’s new agenda moves forward, it’s going to have a significant impact on many workplaces. How much your workplace will be affected may depend on how many of the things Michaels is talking about you’re already doing.