Columns / Surveyor Safety

Safety Sense: More about OSHA

December 1, 2010
KEYWORDS OSHA
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In my June 2010 column (“OSHA goes on the offensive”), I provided an overview of the administrative enhancements to OSHA’s penalty policy and the new OSHA Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). The implementation of these new programs is now beginning. 

Other OSHA initiatives are also having an impact on operating procedures. Last year, OSHA started a National Emphasis Program (NEP) on Recordkeeping. The results after the first year are somewhat alarming. Of the 187 inspections directly related to the NEP, almost half of the inspections found problems with how records were being kept. (There were other recordkeeping citations for the year; these figures relate only to those who were inspected directly for recordkeeping issues.) This NEP is scheduled to run into 2012. Just a few weeks ago, OSHA fined an employer $1.2 million in 83 willful citations for failing to record and for improperly recording work-related injuries and illnesses. However, this case is an exception; it takes a lot of wrongdoing to generate a citation this large, and strong evidence is needed that it was done in a willful manner.

OSHA is now on the warpath against many of the safety incentive plans that have been popular for a number of years. The administration believes many of these contests tend to cause workers to under-report incidents and injuries and even to avoid reporting them at all. I have to admit that I have never been a great fan of this type of incentive plan. Not getting treatment for an injury just because a jacket, dinner or sports tickets are offered doesn’t seem like a good trade-off. I have even heard stories about workers being pressured by their peers not to get medical treatment when a department or division was about to receive a major safety award. I would be very careful initiating any direct safety incentive program that is tied to injury records.

Keep in mind that awards for training classes completed or other creative topics can be beneficial and might be a substitute for “no injury” programs. Also, let’s be realistic--in high-hazard industries, having absolutely no injuries may be setting the goal too high. Your office personnel may go years without an injury, but if you have several field crews, there could occasionally be a minor cut or scrape that needs attention. It would be better to get a doctor to examine the injury immediately than to take a chance and have it develop into something serious later on.

For the fiscal government year ending Sept. 30, OSHA conducted more than 40,600 inspections throughout the country, a number that surpassed the agency’s original goals for the year. Administration officials seem to be patting themselves on the back because they reached this level of enforcement activity even though they had thousands of hours of compliance officer time tied up with the Gulf oil spill. 

Penalties and Citations

OSHA is also closely monitoring the safety-related bills still in Congress. The Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010, commonly called the Byrd Bill, is still active. After the mining fatalities earlier this year, this bill has a great chance of passing. You might wonder what a mining act has to do with surveying firms, and the answer is simple. As the Byrd Bill has worked its way through Congress, penalty structure increases for OSHA have been attached. The increases in penalties are significant. Serious citations would go from $7,000 to a proposed $12,000, and repeat/willful citations would go from $70,000 to $120,000.

This past fiscal year also saw an increase in egregious and significant citations. At the top of the list was the $81 million in citations issued to BP for its refinery operation in Texas City, Texas, following the major explosion several years ago that killed 15 people and injured scores of workers. There was also the $16 million in citations issued to Kleen Energy for the explosion in Connecticut and the $2.4 million issued to Tesoro for the refinery explosion in Washington State (the largest citation ever issued in the state). In fact, OSHA issued more high-level citations last year than at any time in the last decade.

Interestingly, the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA,, Dr. David Michaels, recently noted that there are approximately 2,000 OSHA inspectors throughout the United States, including both federal and state plan states. These inspectors have the responsibility to inspect more than 7 million worksites that employ more than 130 million workers. That averages out to only one compliance officer for every 65,000 workers. 

A Call for Common Sense

Following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in 2001, OSHA responded with what was at the time the largest response in its history. I personally know some OSHA officers who were at the World Trade Center site and were tasked with fit-testing respiratory protection for the workers as well as looking for any potential safety hazards. Yet in 2010, nine years later, we are still hearing about the devastating effects on rescuers and cleanup personnel. Everything from respiratory illnesses and cancers to psychological issues are still being treated. If OSHA failed to protect all of these workers in 2001 with its tremendous response, how does the administration expect a small business in Indiana, Illinois, Utah or any other state to keep its workers completely safe 100 percent of the time?

Understand that I am dedicated to my job as a safety consultant. My ultimate goal is to help prevent accidents and injuries, and I will do whatever I can to help companies improve safety. I also agree that regulations are needed to enforce safety requirements. But without a business in operation, there will be no workers to protect.

OSHA needs the leadership of someone who has run a business in the past and who understands the multitude of challenges that business owners deal with on a daily basis. What’s more, safety training should start in the high schools and colleges of our country rather than on the job. Some may not agree, but I think that makes a lot of safety sense.

What do you think? Share your views on this article here or at www.rpls.com.

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