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May 23, 2016
What you don't know about OSHA could hurt you: At 45, the agency does more than enforce

While OSHA can feel like a behemoth to an employer on the receiving end of citations and fines, the agency is a relatively small player compared with other federal agencies.

With an annual budget of about $500 million, OSHA is dramatically eclipsed in size, for example, by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at $8 billion and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at $7 billion. Even the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a small agency of the Department of Transportation, is funded at $244 million, about half of what OSHA gets.

You know OSHA as an enforcer of standards and a source of information about job hazards. But there’s much more, including programs and initiatives that can supplement your safety program and, in the end, protect your workers from harm. This Compliance Report highlights OSHA’s services for employers and employees and features an interview with a top agency executive about current priorities and challenges.

A look back at OSHA

Since President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA opened a year later), work-related deaths and injuries have declined by 67 percent. In 1970, an estimated 14,000 workers, or 38 per day, were killed on the job. Today that daily death toll is down to 13, although U.S. employment has doubled since that time. And the rate of injury has dropped from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.2 per 100 in 2014. But while the number of incidents is down, the cost of these losses remains huge, with employers shelling out more than $1 billion a week in workers’ compensation costs alone.

The OSH Act covers most private sector employers and their employees, and some in the public sector, through the federal program or through OSHA-approved state plans. Not covered are self-employed individuals, immediate family members of farm employers, and hazards regulated by another federal agency.

OSHA’s construction, general industry, maritime, and agriculture standards protect workers from a variety of serious hazards like falls, trenching, infectious diseases, confined spaces, dangerous machines, and harmful chemicals. Employers must also comply with the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act. It requires that workplaces be free of serious recognized hazards. It is generally cited when no specific OSHA standard applies to a given hazard.

A few facts about OSHA at 45:

  • OSHA’s fiscal year 2016 budget is $552.8 million, unchanged from fiscal year 2015.
  • A combined 2,200 inspectors (including those representing federal OSHA and the state plans) are responsible for the health and safety of 130 million workers employed at more than 8 million worksites around the United States. That’s one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers.
  • Out of 4,251 fatalities in calendar year 2014, just over 20 percent were in construction. The leading causes of those deaths were falls, electrocution, being struck by an object, and being caught in or between something. OSHA calculates that eliminating those four causes would save 508 lives per year.
  • Fatalities involving contractors accounted for 17 percent of all worker deaths in 2014.

Fighting hazards with information

OSHA provides information and services to help employers comply with their responsibilities under the law and to identify and correct job hazards. The agency’s website has matured over the years and today offers a wealth of useful content.

There are guidance documents, fact sheets, hazard alerts, safety and health topics pages, training tools, letters of interpretation on standards and compliance requirements, case studies of safety successes, bulletins about industry-specific hazards, and citation statistics.  Many materials are available in Spanish, Vietnamese, and other languages and are available in print or online.

Although an effort by the agency to require injury and illness prevention programs (I2P2s) in federally regulated workplaces appears to have lost steam, OSHA remains committed to these programs and encourages employers to have them https://www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/safetyhealth. Currently 34 states have requirements or voluntary guidelines for these programs, which are commonly based on a set of key elements such as:

  • Management leadership
  • Worker participation
  • Hazard identification
  • Hazard prevention and control
  • Education and training
  • Program evaluation and improvement

Another agency priority is expert assistance in the form of compliance assistance specialists located in most OSHA area offices across the country. These are trained specialists who can provide information about OSHA standards, short educational programs about specific hazards or OSHA rights and responsibilities, and information on other compliance assistance resources. OSHA recommends contacting your local area office to identify a specialist or using this online directory: https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/compliance_assistance/cas_directory_auto.html.

Consultation—free and confidential

One of OSHA’s most sought-after offerings is the on-site safety and health consultation program for small business (https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html). It offers free, confidential advice in all states with priority given to high-hazard worksites. Federal OSHA provides 90 percent of the funding for the program, which is operated on a state level with headquarters at universities and other settings. In response to requests from employers who wish to create or improve their OSH programs, consultation specialists conduct about 29,000 visits to worksites each year, covering some 1.5 million workers.

GETTING MORE OUT OF OSHA

Independent safety consultant Abby Ferri (https://theferrigroup.co) acknowledges that OSHA offers a lot. But you’ve got to be willing to go after it. “Some people are shy or hesitant about even calling OSHA consultation, [which is separate from enforcement],” she says.

Ferri is “really big on consultation” and encourages employers to participate if they fit the profile of small- to medium-sized companies, usually in high-hazard industries. She likes what she sees, including openness on the part of OSHA compliance officers to learn about hazards they might not be familiar with. In some cases, Ferri’s clients will invite an OSHA consultation staff member to bring colleagues to a site so that they can learn about the hazard.

Ferri is also a fan of OSHA partnership programs, in which organizations, employers, workers, and others craft unique agreements with OSHA aimed at eliminating serious hazards. Through its alliances, OSHA works with groups committed to safety and health by developing compliance assistance tools and resources.

Another way to benefit from OSHA expertise is to attend a public presentation by an agency official, according to Ferri. Agency leaders often conduct speaking tours across the country at certain times of the year. “They may discuss inspection focus areas, statistics, or agency goals for the following year.” Ferri says these sessions are usually hosted by local chapters of national safety organizations and include question and answer sessions.

Ferri advises employers to take advantage of the assistance OSHA offers. “Don’t be shy about picking up the phone.” She says staff members at the state-run consultation offices are often happy to answer questions, even for employers not officially involved in consultation.

Consultation is separate from enforcement and does not result in penalties or citations. Consultants work with employers to identify hazards, provide advice on compliance, and help establish safety and health programs. Many employers maintain an ongoing relationship with their consultant and regularly seek their advice.

OSHA also offers a variety of cooperative programs, strategic partnerships, and alliances. These permit the agency to partner with employers, professional associations, labor groups, employees, and other stakeholders. The relationships are formalized through unique agreements with the goal of preventing fatalities, injuries, and illnesses by developing compliance assistance tools and resources.

OSHA’s well-known Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) recognize organizations and worksites that have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain below-average injury and illness rates. Workplaces are rewarded by being removed from programmed inspections. VPP sites report fewer incidents and cost savings as a result of participation.

The OSHA Training Institute partners with 27 education centers across the United States to deliver courses on OSHA standards and safety and health topics (http://www.osha.gov/otiec).

Insider perspective

To get the current pulse of the agency, we talked with Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. “There’s a myth out there that we are just an enforcement agency and that this administration is only doing enforcement. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Barab says the agency’s intent is to make sure workplaces are safe and that employers have all the information they need to make that happen. “By the same token,” he says, “Our compliance assistance program is focused on workers, and making sure they know about the hazards and have the facts about their rights.”

Barab considers the consultation program OSHA’s best kept secret. “People complain that they can’t afford a full-time safety and health person, or even a consultant, and then OSHA comes out and issues a citation about a hazard they weren’t even aware of. They ask why we can’t just give them a warning.” Barab counters that, in fact, consultation program addresses precisely those issues, basically giving employers a heads-up on hazards they might not be aware of.

At OSHA’s request, the state consultation offices help promote the agency’s agenda, like new requirements or a regional or national emphasis program. This is done by prioritizing employer requests that address those issues.

New rules give enforcement a boost

Says Barab, “We understand that most employers want to do the right thing, and we want to help them. Even in enforcement mode, we try to be very helpful in terms of bringing employers into compliance. We offer reductions in penalties for small businesses, or if you show good faith or have a good past history. We try to be flexible.”

As for enforcement Barab says, “We’re seeing more of the same—and far too many—issues in construction, and especially falls. We’re trying to focus on how to best leverage our resources, including through our new reporting requirements, which have been quite helpful.” (Under the new rules, employers must report all fatalities within 8 hours, and all in-patient hospitalizations, amputations, and losses of an eye within 24 hours.) 

In the first year of the new rules, OSHA received 10,000 reports. Because it’s impossible to inspect all of these worksites, the agency came up with a “ready response” initiative, in which OSHA phones employers who have reported serious injuries. OSHA asks them to conduct an internal investigation to determine the root cause of the incident, and to get back to the agency with the results and their plan for avoiding a similar occurrence in the future. Barab says the initiative has yielded many effective interventions. In the first year OSHA used the rapid response method to reach about half of those that reported serious injuries.

Emerging issues

With just a few months to go before a new administration and the likelihood of new leadership at the agency, OSHA has not hesitated to articulate its viewpoint on matters including the economic impact of workplace injuries. In a paper titled Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job, OSHA notes that despite decades of effort, three million workers are seriously injured, and thousands are killed on the job each year.

The document addresses the financial and social impact of injuries and illness, with workers and their families and taxpayer-supported programs paying most of the costs. OSHA says an injury creates a trap that leaves workers and families less able to save for the future or make investments in skills and education that lead to advancement. The incidents force working families out of the middle class and into poverty while keeping families of lower-wage workers from entering the middle class.

A big factor in all of this is changes in state-based workers’ compensation insurance programs that make it difficult for injured workers to receive the full benefits they are entitled to. Examples include wage-replacement payments and coverage for medical expenses. Employers currently pay only about 22 percent of the overall financial cost of injuries and illnesses through workers’ compensation. This cost shifting has forced injured workers, families, and taxpayers to subsidize the costs.

The best way to address the problem is to prevent injuries and illnesses from occurring. OSHA says the failure of employers to prevent millions of work injuries and illnesses each year, and the failure of the workers’ compensation system “are truly adding inequality to injury.”

Other priorities

A current focus at OSHA is providing services and information for those Barab calls “vulnerable workers.” That includes individuals who may not have English as their first language, day laborers whose employers can change by the day, and who have no access to training and information about their rights. He says OSHA looks for more and better ways to communicate with these workers, including hazard information in various languages, and training grants to organizations dedicated to reaching these workers.

Barab says another priority for the agency is addressing employment issues related to the new economy. “The OSH Act is a 20th century law that’s operating in the 21st century.” Recent years have seen a large and growing use of temporary workers in construction, manufacturing, and other industries. These workers often lack the training they would likely have gotten if they were permanent employees.

Especially tragic are incidents that occur on a worker’s first day on the job. Barab says OSHA is working with professional staffing organizations to make sure that temporary agencies and host employers understand that they share a joint responsibility for ensuring the health and safety of temp workers. “It’s complicated and it’s something we’re trying to get the word out about,” he says.

As for recent agency wins, Barab points to OSHA’s final rule to curb lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease by limiting workers’ exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The rule includes two standards, one for construction and one for general industry and maritime. OSHA estimates the rule will save over 600 lives annually and will ultimately prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year.

Barab emphasizes that he, OSHA Chief David Michaels, PhD, and other leaders have their sights set high over the next several months. “Stay tuned. We’re going to be active until the last minute we’re here, and beyond,” he adds.

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