Is OSHA’s Role in Safety Evolving?
Having personally interviewed hundreds of executives and managers in a wide variety of industries, I find it hard to believe there is anyone in a leadership position that doesn’t care about the safety and well-being of their people.
This begs the question: Are there companies whose ownership and/or management do not care about the safety and well-being of their employees?
If not, is there still a need for a governing body such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to hold companies accountable for protecting their workers?
Upon taking a closer look on jobsites to see if companies prioritize safety even when it means missing a deadline or overrunning costs, I believe many companies would fail in the self-governing category. My observations confirmed that self-regulation will work only to a point.
If situations exist where safety takes a back seat to production or profits, then a watchdog is necessary.
Before starting his construction business in 1984, the owner and CEO of my sister company Lang Masonry Contractors (LMC), Damian Lang, was never taught the importance of safety. Like many young adults, Damian thought he already knew how to operate a construction company. In the early years, his company was not having jobsite accidents, so the numerous site visits and fines from OSHA only upset him. With the lack of injuries, he did not understand why he was receiving numerous citations. Why were they focused on him and his company?
In one incident with OSHA, LMC was cited for failing to require all employees to wear steel toed boots on the jobsite. As a solution, the company gave the employees an allowance and two-week window to purchase steel toed boots. Anyone failing to get theirs within the allotted timeframe would not be allowed to return to work. Before the end of the two-week deadline, OSHA visited a jobsite and found an employee violator of the steel toed boot policy.
OSHA again fined LMC for a repeat offense. LMC went to arbitration with OSHA due to the fact that there was a formally written date by which the employees were required to have their steel toed shoes. LMC lost in arbitration, and rightfully so, as OSHA argued successfully that ownership should not give advance notice when the enforcement of a safety policy will begin. The critical lesson OSHA taught LMC is that safety policies must be enforced immediately, not later.
There were more lessons learned. OSHA warned LMC that accidents could happen if all safety policies were not enforced. This proved not only true but threatened the company’s survival in the late 1990’s. Two experiences changed Damian’s perspective about safety policies and OSHA forever: watching one of his best friends lie in bed for six weeks with his feet elevated above his head after breaking both heels from a fall and having another foreman fall off scaffolding and breaking one of his heels.
He went from working against to embracing OSHA and its policies. Damian says it wasn’t about the money, it was about what was best for the employees. Thank goodness OSHA was exacting in its site monitoring or LMC may have suffered more devastating incidents.
I was reviewing new products with the safety director of one of our largest customers a few weeks ago when he was informed of an OSHA inspection on one of his jobsites. This moved the conversation away from the products to the validity of OSHA. Like this safety director, most companies working in general industry and construction realize the need for OSHA. I also asked five safety directors from different industries about the importance of OSHA and they all felt that OSHA is very necessary, mainly to root out companies across the U.S. that favor production over safety at their companies.
My daughter always says, check yourself before you wreck yourself. I decided to take her advice and look at the situation from OSHA’s point of view. After researching the data, I realized that similar to the pressure business owners are under to turn a profit to survive, OSHA officials are under similar pressure enforcing safety at all companies. In most cases, keeping workers safe is critical to keeping the company in business. In 2010, proposed initial OSHA penalties for safety and health violations totaled less than $150 million while employers’ costs for providing workers compensation (WC) insurance totaled nearly $72 billion. Without OSHA enforcing policies, employers may have saved the $150 million, but the $72 billion in WC costs would be much higher, possibly twice as much.
Let’s take a look at other countries where there is no OSHA governing body in place:
• India loses 48,000 workers due to occupational accidents yearly (“48,000 Die Due to Occupation Accidents Yearly,” The Times of India, November 20, 2017)
• China loses 38,000 workers due to occupational accidents yearly (“Deaths from Workplace Accidents in China Fall 12pc in 2017 to 38,000,” South China Morning Post, January 30, 2018)
The US loses 5,190 workers due to occupational accidents yearly (“Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary, 2016,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 18, 2017)
With 10 regional offices and 85 local area offices, OSHA and its state partners have about 2,100 inspectors. Compare that to roughly 8 million worksites with approximately 130 million workers. Those numbers swell even more when our economy is booming. This means OSHA has one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers. The math makes it easy to see how difficult it is for OSHA to cover their regions effectively.
As if these challenging numbers are not enough, OSHA is being asked to do more with less. The figures below represent the annual budgets for Fed-OSHA with 2018 being an estimated budget based on their requested 2016 budget: $552,787,000
2017 Budget: $551,736,000
2018 Budget: $543,257,000
I heard a safety director ask an OSHA inspector why he is writing him up for a violation rather than teaching him to work safely. The OSHA inspector said he is on-site to enforce policies, not to teach them. “You should have your people trained in all areas of safety,” he went on to say.
The cold hard truth is that the OSHA inspector was right. A police officer would not give a drunk driver advice on how to stop drinking. Instead, he would put him in jail. It’s the driver’s responsibility to learn his lesson or face steeper consequences next time.
I have heard contractors say OSHA should offer full throttle educational programs, starting with the fundamentals. Then they can create partnerships with companies and roll out compliance programs instead of hitting the same jobsites with fines several times in a row. To their credit, OSHA has begun working with some companies to develop policies together. However, let’s not forget why OSHA exists: to police industry safety, not teach it. Employers are responsible for training their employees in safety or paying the consequences enforced by OSHA later.
We may have reached a point in our evolution where it is necessary to quit OSHA as the enemy and instead work with them to help create even safer work environments. After all, isn’t the goal the same: creating safe work environments for all employees?
Ken Hebert Bio
Ken Hebert is the Co-Founder and National Sales Manager of Malta Dynamics and a customer-focused professional who has spent over 20 years in the safety and training industry. To view the safety products his company has created to help keep people safe, visit Malta Dynamics’ website at maltadynamics.com. To receive his free e-newsletter or to speak with Ken about technical safety issues or about Malta Dynamics products, Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 832-683-6218.