On April 28, 2011, OSHA turned 40 years old. Is the agency suffering an early mid-life crisis?
Why is the age 40 associated with mid-life crisis? It’s probably because people realize that they’ve spent about half of their time on this earth and have only another 40 years or so left.
If someone is fairly happy with his or her first 40 years, the birthday may pass without much notice.
But if that’s not the case, the birthday celebrant may be thinking, “How can I turn this around?” And that seems to be the case with OSHA.
Many are unhappy with OSHA these days. Groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say its regulations are job killers.
Unions and progressive groups say the agency has fallen down on its job, noting 14 workers are still killed on the job each day in the U.S.
(If those on opposite sides of an issue both feel you’re on the wrong track, chances are you must be doing something right.)
Even OSHA’s administrator, David Michaels, points to struggles the agency faces. In a speech last year, he pointed to four of them:
- Michaels said OSHA is too small. Combined with state OSHAs, there are about 2,000 inspectors to cover 7 million worksites in the U.S.
- OSHA’s statutory maximums for fines are much below those of other federal agencies. The maximum fine for a serious safety violation is $7,000. On the other hand, Congress raised the maximum Federal Communication Commission (FCC) fine for obscenity on radio or TV to $325,000 in 2006. A company would have to rack up 47 serious violations to reach the amount that the FCC could impose for one potty-mouth moment on TV.
- Michaels bemoaned “weak legislation” that hampers OSHA’s ability to protect workers from retaliation and discrimination when they speak up about workplace hazards.
- Occupational exposure limits exist for only a small percentage of chemicals commonly used in U.S. workplaces. Some of those limits are based on science from the 1960s or earlier.
The road ahead?
OK, enough about the agency’s troubles. How does Michaels intend to turn this thing around?
- Stronger enforcement. Michaels says some companies are willing to permit the existence of workplace hazards because it’s not in their financial interest to correct hazards. He says inspections must be increased and penalties must rise so they act as deterrents.
- Change workplace culture. Michaels has called for a paradigm shift with employers going beyond meeting OSHA standards to implementing injury and illness prevention programs (I2P2) that find and fix hazards. The agency is in the process of creating regulations that would require many companies to have I2P2s.
- Better ways to address hazards. Michaels has called OSHA’s process for issuing regulations “unworkable.” New permissible exposure limits (PELs) take years to enact. It’s been reported that Michaels would like to use the General Duty Clause to hold companies accountable for employee exposures, even when PELs haven’t been developed for particular substances.
- Improve injury tracking. Michaels believes workplace injuries are significantly under-reported. To prevent injuries, it’s necessary to track previous patterns. Comparatively, less information is available on how OSHA plans to tackle this problem. Electronic data collection is mentioned as one part of the solution.
So, let’s here from those of you responsible for making sure U.S. workers go home safe every day. What should OSHA focus on in the coming years? What should it not focus on? Let us know in the Comments Box below.