Friday, February 6, 2009

Clowns to the left of me...

My agency often gets criticized for how long it takes to publish a new standard, and there’s little doubt takes too long, but the criticism really is misdirected. I know how that sounds, like I’m defending the agency just because it’s my agency, but I’m not. There are many things to criticize within OSHA, and I’m a firm believer that constructive criticism can make a big difference in how the agency performs IF the criticism is justified. When it comes to how long it takes to promulgate a new standard, however, the criticism simply is not justified (what standards we choose to promulgate, now that’s a different discussion). In order to understand what I mean it is important to know the rules that an agency like OSHA operates under within the political crucible that is Washington, DC.

Rule 1: Never forget that Democrats and Republicans hate each other. I don’t mean individuals, as James Carville and Mary Matalin demonstrate, I mean the parties hate each other (since this is a blog about OSHA I won’t get into how dangerous that is for the long term survival of the country). What does is mean for OSHA? As the man said “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, Stuck in the middle with you. More than most agencies, and certainly disproportionately to our size, OSHA is a political lightening rod. And when the winds roar and the thunder crashes who gets hit by the lightening? Usually us career professionals, and we usually get hit right in the ass. It’s true that we are rarely the ones testifying on the Hill or getting called to the principal’s office (ie the Secretary’s office), but, when the dust settles, we’re the ones who have to do the work and respond to the criticisms. And that’s OK, we all know what our jobs entail and we’ve made a conscious decision to do them anyway. Most of us because we believe so strongly in what we do.

Rule 2: Our standard setting process is mostly set by the White House (through OMB) and various acts of Congress, with some influence from the courts. SBREFA (Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996), DQA (Data Quality Act, 2001) and the PRA (Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995) all add significant time to the rulemaking process (I think there are others as well). Interestingly enough, neither the White House nor Congress have to answer for this, OSHA does, usually in the form of the Secretary or Assistant Secretary testifying before a Congressional hearing.

Rule 3: Safety and Health policy in this country is not set by safety and health professionals, it’s set by attorneys with little or no understanding of safety and health. Did anyone notice that the last Assistant Secretary and both of his Deputy Assistant Secretaries were all lawyers?

What does this all mean for us at OSHA? Obviously that it takes years for the agency to promulgate a standard, which is, of course, exactly what Congress and the White House want. And, not only are we slowed down, it’s the ideal situation for the politicians on both sides. Think about it, they set the rules which slow us down, then they get to blame us for being slow. It’s a political exacta that can’t be beat.

Is it frustrating? Sure it is, but that’s OK because I remember my interview with William, in front of his wife and two small children, the day after he almost died in a trench collapse. It’s those two kids that keep me coming back.


  1. Well said. thanks for your blog. I know we don't do everything right but there are a lot of us out here who are trying to do it right, CSHO's and Managers!

  2. I learned long ago that you ALWAYS want government to work slowly. If they work too fast, there will be too many unintended consequences. Or they are able to use the new rules in ways that they were never intended.

    For example, OSHA wants to rush out this new crane standard because "there are so many crane accidents." Well, there are actually very few real crane accidents, but instead there are many rigging accidents. Something this new standard barely talks about.

    I will take a slow government rulemaking any day of the week.

  3. Dilligas. OSHA should have changed the Ionizing Radiation Standard when the DOE and the NRC did back in the 1980s. There is no valid reason why OSHA didn't. However, one of the few qualified folks who could have expedited the update of the Radiation Standard was fired for doing an exemplary job during the Congressionally Mandated OSHA audits of the DOE Labs. They found serious infractions related to radioactive source security. Rather than be applauded for a job well done, they were fired. Pure and simple politics. I call Bullshit on OSHA. OSHA should not be considered for overseeing radiation safety at DOE labs, since they have very little knowledge with respect to radiation safety, and they have no integrity.

  4. OSHA does not rush out new standards! OSHA has had a great deal of time to develop and promulgate a crane standard based on the wealth of agency experience. In order to codify that experience, some serious research and deliberation had to be performed. Hence, the crane standard was not something that should have been developed Ad Hoc, but which should have been developed based on years of experience. The poor worn out excuses by the agency no longer wash or jibe with reality! Incompetence within the agency must no longer be allowed! Shit or get off the pot! Dead wood needs to be eliminated! Competence must be rewarded as opposed to dead wood and incompetence.