Columns / Surveyor Safety

Safety Sense: Watch out for the new OSHA.

October 1, 2009
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Let’s face it: We had eight years of a pro-business administration at the Department of Labor. Now, for at least the next four years, look for a lot of changes within OSHA and its DOL agencies.

In the 2010 OSHA budget, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has requested that 130 new OSHA compliance officers be hired. The positions will be funded by a $51 million increase in OSHA’s budget. The budget increase will also fund 25 new positions for whistleblower complaint investigators and five new support positions. The budget also requests 20 new employees just to work on new OSHA regulation promulgation.

In addition to these changes, there are also strong rumblings in safety circles that many of the programs that offer assistance to businesses may see some decrease in funding or be eliminated altogether.

A Business Matter

Most of the changes at OSHA will have the potential to take more hard-earned money out of the pockets of companies throughout the country. Don’t think so? How about an increase in the top OSHA citations? Currently, all serious citations start at $7,000 with repeat and willful violations starting at $70,000. Thankfully, most businesses don’t get cited as repeat or willful offenders. The vast majority of citations issued are deemed as serious.

Congress is also considering legislation to increase OSHA’s safety bite. The House has introduced the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067).[2] Within this proposed legislation, there are requirements for public employees’ protection, rights for injured workers or their heirs to be informed during an OSHA investigation and even participate in discussions with OSHA before a citation is issued, and some serious increases in OSHA fines. The $7,000 serious citation would go to $12,000; the $70,000 willful or repeat citation would go to $120,000, and a new category would be added. The new category says that “if such a violation causes the death of an employee, such civil penalty amounts shall be increased to not more than $250,000 for such violation, but not less than $50,000 for such violation, except that for an employer with 25 or fewer employees such penalty shall not be less than $25,000 for such violation.”

In addition to the monetary fines, the House is looking at increasing our prison populations. Serious injuries could lead to as much as five years in prison and 10 years if a fatality occurs. That sentence increases to 20 years if the same person has been previously convicted of the same violation. The Senate is also looking at various bills to increase OSHA’s power--and don’t underestimate an effort to honor the late Sen. Ted Kennedy by passing some of this legislation.

What About Personal Responsibility?

In more than 30 years of dealing with OSHA matters, I am still waiting on some common-sense legislation that penalizes the workers if they intentionally violate an OSHA regulation and the company can prove the worker had been adequately trained to recognize the hazard. Too much emphasis is being placed upon the acts of an employer and not enough on the employee. A company can train workers for hours and hours, but if the worker just doesn’t want to do something, the company still gets blamed.

Now, I don’t want to take money out of workers’ pocket, but how about something like driving school? In many jurisdictions, when you commit a driving violation, you can have the first offense erased if you attend a remedial school. Why not do the same for OSHA violations? If workers had to give up a couple of Saturdays to attend safety training, they might think twice the next time about not wearing that vest or harness.

Don’t get me wrong, though--I’m not saying that companies don’t have room for improvement. I have never seen a business that can’t do better at safety. I still speak on a regular basis with surveying firms that, unfortunately, have yet to establish a written safety and health program. The extent of their safety training is very limited. But these aren’t evil people who don’t care about their employees as some might contend; they are hardworking entrepreneurs who just want their businesses to succeed. They care tremendously about their employees. I have spoken with several surveyors over the past few months that had to lay off workers, and it was obvious that the move was devastating to them. They truly cared about the workers and how they would be able to handle the layoff.

Survival of the Fittest

All of us learned from those who preceded our introduction into the profession. When we have been taught to do a task a particular way, it is especially hard to change our procedures. Nonetheless, it is up to each and every manager and owner to do everything possible to offer a safe workplace and make difficult changes as needed. Need some motivation? What if the increased fines become law? Would a $1,000 citation put you out of business? Probably not. But what about a $250,000 fine?

In today’s economy, every cent helps, and even small jobs can keep the doors open for another week. Spend some money for safety training, and increase your safety efforts. I know it’s hard to do in these times, but it could mean the survival of your business.

References

  1. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis gives her vision for the department in 2010 and answers questions from many people around the country in a speech available online at www.dol.gov/budget/presentation.htm.
  2. The full text of H.R. 2067 is available at www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h2067/text.

 

What do you think? Are higher fees and more compliance officers needed to protect workers, or is OSHA crossing the line? View this column online at www.pobonline.com to post your comments.

Sidebar: Field Vehicle Safety Follow-Up

Shortly after writing my last column on field vehicle safety, I spent several days with an OSHA compliance officer on a construction project that was being inspected. One of the subcontractors almost made it through the inspection without receiving any citations. But while walking by the sub’s vehicle (a van), the officer noticed it only had two seats, and he had already spoken with three workers. When he opened the door, he saw a lawn chair behind the driver’s seat. The subcontractor was cited for not having a safe place for the third worker to sit in the vehicle.

This situation emphasizes my comments that having a safe seat for everyone in a vehicle is extremely important.

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