Safety and OSHA News

OSHA fines: To shame or not to shame – is that really the question?

Much has been made about the anti-regulatory tilt of the Trump administration. Creating new regulations is one thing. But when it comes to OSHA enforcement, will there really be big changes? Well, maybe one in particular. 

The U.S. Department of Labor, under Trump-appointed Secretary Alexander Acosta, has released its five-year strategic plan. OSHA’s strategic objectives for 2018-2022 (a page and a half) are included.

See if any of this sounds familiar:

  • “Enforcement is the underpinning of the OSH Act. Strong, deterrent strategies will be used for employers that disregard their obligation … “
  • “OSHA’s inspection regime remains active and with various data sets, enforcement will target bad actors and recalcitrant employers.”
  • OSHA will assign “safety and health priorities through regional and national emphasis programs.”

There is one change: “OSHA will expand the Voluntary Protection Program, bringing more employers into the program.” By contrast, the rate of entry into VPP during the Obama administration slowed down considerably – it wasn’t as high a priority.

But there’s already been a change not listed in the strategic objectives. The unspoken compliance difference is in tone.

About that shaming …

Since Jan. 20, 2017, OSHA and DOL haven’t been talking about using “shaming” as a method to discourage companies from ignoring safety. Obama administration OSHA chief David Michaels called shaming via agency press releases a key deterrent for companies that would ignore worker safety.

On this matter, it seems we’ve now seen two extremes. During the Obama administration, OSHA administrator David Michaels said the agency hoped public condemnation of business activities that result in serious injury or death will act as a deterrent.

Compared with the rate of OSHA press releases about fines during the Obama years, they’ve practically dried up in the first ten months of the Trump administration. They’re still issued, but not many, comparatively speaking.

Yet, aren’t these press releases about more than public shaming? What about government transparency? Shouldn’t businesses, including their safety managers, know about the direction OSHA is taking with enforcement? And not just broad statements, but specifics.

In some corners, the reduction in number and softening in tone of these releases isn’t enough. They want they practice to end altogether.

Why? Well, in the cases of the companies getting fined, it’s bad publicity. Various groups argue that it’s unfair to the companies because citations are often either dropped, negotiated to something less or overturned by administrative judges, and that part of the story doesn’t get covered by the media (which isn’t true).

But isn’t this protecting the few at the detriment of the many? Even if initial OSHA citations are reduced or dropped against companies, wouldn’t you rather know what OSHA is doing regarding enforcement than not?

The argument for or against these press releases has revolved around the shaming and deterrent effects they have.

But I’d like to raise a different argument: The current administration is hurting efforts to create safer workplaces by not making information about OSHA citations and fines more available. Not because it removes shaming, but because it removes information.

As noted above, the current administration wants to bolster the VPP, “ultimately providing safer workplaces for more employees.”

One of the big benefits of VPP goes beyond what companies do for themselves as participants. A big part of it has to do with sharing best safety practices that have worked for them. There’s a whole, separate organization devoted to this.

But besides finding out what good companies are doing to become safer, it’s just as educational to know what companies that haven’t been as safe did wrong.

Want proof? Go to any safety conference, and see how many EHS pros attend the sessions in which OSHA officials talk about what’s going on at the agency, the Top 10 violations or “OSHA’s interesting cases.” They’re packed.

So: Where is the middle ground? Since OSHA intends to “maintain a strong worker safety enforcement program,” as its strategic objectives state, providing information on how the agency is interacting with companies – not only about successes, but also about failures – has to be part of the program.

Let’s put a positive spin on these press releases. They serve important purposes beyond shaming. Instead of a deterrent so that bad companies won’t do the wrong thing, maybe we should hope that from reading them, all companies will be encouraged to do the right thing regarding workplace safety.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. I can see both sides of this issue. #1- I am all for sharing information. I think learning from the experiences of others is one of the best ways to prevent injuries and incidents. #2 – A company might feel they are undeserving of a “public shaming” if the incident in question is an isolated incident and not a true reflection of their safety culture. I’ve seen that firsthand and a lot of the time it’s impossible to defend without a detailed investigation. If you’ve read these OSHA press releases, they seem (in my opinion) to be written almost from a prosecutors perspective. They are accusatory, negatives are highlighted and a lot of assumptions are taken as facts. If they were written to be more about information sharing then a lot of the pressure to end them might go away.

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