Tuesday, May 26, 2009


How does an agency like OSHA measure success? Maybe the better question is: How should an agency like OSHA measure success?

This whole discussion is predicated on the idea that we must provide some measure of our efforts. Some people will make the argument that we should just do our jobs and not waste time measuring what we're doing, after all, the resources used to make those measurements could be used to do more inspections. While I am certainly sympathetic to that argument, I'm also enough of a pragmatist to recognize that Congress won't let us get away with that, nor should they I suppose. As someone who pays taxes I expect departments and agencies like EPA, or CDC, or DOE to justify their existence, and OSHA should be no different.

As long as we must provide some measure of our success, the question remains: How?

Historically we've used several measures, although everyone seems to fixate on the number of inspection we do every year. Personally, I've aways found inspection numbers amusing. Not necessarily a great measure of success, yet at the same time, not something to get too worked up about. We're all familiar with the end of the fiscal year ritual, towards the end of August the AD looks at the total inspection numbers for the office, sees that we're short, and he goes running around the office screaming "the sky is falling, the sky is falling." We, of course, then scatter like cockroaches when the light is turned on and start looking for construction sites. Some people refer to this as the "great lie," but here's the thing, we're inspecting a seasonal industry (at least in the northern states) that has some of the highest fatality and injury rates out there, at a time when they are at their greatest production. How is this a bad thing?

Local police departments will often use what are known as "saturation patrols" in areas where crime rates may have had a sudden spike. These police patrols don't necessarily produce a lot of arrests, but the increased presence has been shown to reduce crime in that area (at least temporarily). To me, the end of the year construction surge is, at the very least, a lot like saturation patrolling. Most construction companies aren't run by stupid people, and many, especially the bigger ones or those that have been around for awhile, have figured out our end of summer surge and are more conscientious about safety at that time of year. I ask again, how is this bad thing? Certainly it's unfortunate that they don't keep that level of awareness up all year, but even short term improvement is still improvement.

So should we get away from total inspection numbers? I wouldn't mind it and I'm sure there are ADs who would like too as well, but inspection numbers are easy for Congress to understand and the unions point to them all the time, so I don't see them going away.

What about using BLS data? It seems to me that this is a much better measure of success, after all our goal is to reduce fatalities/injuries/illnesses. But, as many people ave pointed out, the data is not necessarily accurate. If the data was accurate? The unions wouldn't want us using BLS numbers because that would suggest that business is making progress (regardless of whether or not you think OSHA had a hand in it or not), and then what would they rally against? Please don't construe this as anti-union, it's not (I'm in the union), but I do recognize that labor and management will use anything they can find against each other (sad as that may be to those of us caught in the middle).

The people at the OSHA Underground don't want us using inspection numbers, and the Pump Handle thinks the BLS data is worthless, so now what?

Keeping in mind that we MUST provide some sort of measurables, I ask you: How do we measure our success?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Public University Research Laboratories

A friend of mine sent me this article from Slate, which discusses the safety and health problems commonly found in public university research laboratories. Even though Slate's conclusion is that the funding agencies need to require better S&H compliance, I think it also argues for OSHA jurisdiction over local government employees such as, oh I don't know, college researchers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Two weeks ago the Pump Handle posted a short excerpt from the confirmation hearing for the new Solicitor of Labor, below is part of that testimony (which I have copy/pasted from the Pump Handle):
Senator Murray: “This committee has had a number of hearings about workplace accidents and the aftermath. One of the things that has become apparent is families of victims have very little say in OSHA and MSHA’s compliance decsions, and I wanted to ask you if you believe that OSHA and Regional Solicitors should consult more closely with the victims’ familes or injured workers when they are assessing penalties?”

SOL-nominee Smith: “Yes, I do believe they should consult more closely with the victim’s families. I also believe in the wage and hour [area], that victims—those underpaid workers—should be consulted when there are enforcement actions taken.”

“I believe in a much more open and inclusive process of investigation; not that the victims’ families or the victims themselves can dictate the decision, but I definitely believe that their wishes and perspective have to taken into consideration to make it more meaningful enforcement.”
I believe that we, as an agency, do a poor job of communicating with the families of those who have died at work, and I'll discuss that in a minute, but consulting on penalties or anything else? So much for justice being blind. We are supposed to be an unbiased evaluator of the workplace, allowing families to influence inspection results is no more right than allowing businesses to influence the results. How can anyone think we would remain unbiased while sitting next to a sobbing woman who just lost her husband? We can't, and we shouldn't be put into the position.

Having said that, once an investigation is complete and any citations have been issued, I think we should sit down with the family and discuss what we found, and by we I mean the Area Director. Celeste is right, the families deserve to know how and why, and a form letter just doesn't cut it.

Comment Follow-up, Again.

Just one I have to follow-up on:
"Abel was responding at length to my anonymous question about OSHA's impact. I appreciate the thought Abel put into his response, and I'm mulling it over. I haven't commented again until now, so that weren't my incendiary bombs thrown above."
I recognized the difference in writing styles. The "bomber" seems to be an anti-government type who's been dubbed "The Anarchist." Lots of complaining but no substance. Even so, I'm still not deleting his comments, everyone deserves to have their opinions heard, no matter how extreme those opinions may be.

I do appreciate thought provoking and well thought out arguments, so mull it over and we'll keep the conversation going, and hopefully others will chime in.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Comment Follow-ups

There are some comments I want to follow-up on. First:
"Why would I report the lack of audiograms when the same people know I never had one in 5 years? Everyone who was in the field should be tested. The agency just does not want to eat the comp claims right now."
You do understand that the agency doesn't pay WC claims, right? That's been one of the biggest obstacles in getting federal agencies interested in workplace safety and health, the claims don't come out of operating budgets. You know what you need to do, tell your AD or RA or the agency's Medical Officer. If you won't do that, it's on you, so step up and take some responsibility for your own safety and health. Second:
"Welcome back Abel. Glad to see that you have reassumed your duty station here."
Thanks, but I never left it, we don't all get to work in an office every day. Next:
"And thanks for reminding us ALL that employers are responsible for safety and health in the workplace. Now, how about tackling the issue of small employers who are unable to pay OSHA penalties in these economic times. Or, in fact, larger employers who are in similiar circumstances. We're giving the auto industry so much money--do you think we might give employers a penalty break for a while. Not a break on making the workplace safe, just a break on the fines."
NO! Not just no, HELL NO! We only fine companies when they aren't doing the right thing (contrary to popular belief, most of us don't actually enjoy that part of the job). If a company isn't doing the right thing it deserves the penalties, regardless of the current economic times. Besides, if a company is running so close to the edge that our paltry fines impact their bottom line that much, they are doomed anyway. No, in the same way that we all have to pay the parking ticket regardless of our financial situation, companies have to be held accountable for worker safety and health even in hard times. And finally:
"Not an idiot. 7.5 million workplaces with 1,000 inspectors plus not responsible for worker safety and health adds up to the definition of a paper tiger. It's not like you're the EPA.

As far as impact of OSHA, if you point me to a study tracking back before OSHA was created that shows an increase in declining rates, I'll be happy to recant.

That doesn't mean OSHA is useless -- far from it. I see you folks more as the equivalent of that guy who sees one million starfishes on the beach, and throws one back. What are you doing? a friend asks. You'll never be able to throw them all back. And the guy says, yeah, but it makes a difference to this starfish.

That is, OSHA has an impact on specific companies, and that's worth doing. I didn't mean to imply OSHA's useless. Just too small for its task."
Ah, you're making a common mistake when it comes to OSHA's impact, you assume that the only impact we have is the direct impact from an inspection, but that's not the case. Think about it:
  • In today's workplaces, how many companies don't have a HAZCOM program and MSDSs? The answer is not many (percentage-wise). I'm not suggesting every company is diligent about their HAZCOM program or MSDS's, but they have something.
  • Most of the trenches I drive by today are sloped or have a trenchbox, it's a long way from 100% compliance, but it's a lot better than it was 20 years ago.
  • How many scaffolds do we inspect that aren't fully planked, or don't have mid- and top-rails? Certainly a few, but now we typically find that one or two mid-rails are missing, compared to 20 years ago when it was common to find a scaffold with no mid-rails. And other fall protection, especially harnesses, are very common today, even if the lanyard is worn and may not hold.
  • Find me a chemical plant that doesn't have a PSM program, including those we've never been to.
  • What about healthcare? Safer medical devices are now the norm, not the exception (and that in just 10 years), Hepatitis B vaccinations are almost universal in healthcare, most hospitals have removed latex gloves by now, and more nursing homes than not, now have modern resident lift assist devices (not the old Hoyer lifts, which were just a modified car mechanic's engine lift).
  • Check out the materials that were developed for the spray-on-bed-lining industry through the Alliance Regions V and VI had with the Center for the Polyurethanes Industry. Some of these efforts have lead the manufacturers to make process or equipment changes. Now convince me that materials like this that come from an industry association doesn't have an impact.
  • Speaking of manufacturers making changes, 30 years ago if you walked into the local home improvement store of your choice, how likely were you to find a guard on a table saw? Now I'm not sure you can buy a saw without one. And the next time you buy a can of paint, ask the seller for an MSDS, I'll bet they give you one.
  • Take recordkeeping, even with all of the discussion we've been having about hiding injuries on the logs, the fact is that most places don't hide injuries, and they have the logs!
Even if you buy the argument that industry is totally motivated by WC costs (which I don't buy), when the insurance companies make recommendations about what an employer should do, what standards do you suppose they point to? I'm not suggesting that all OSHA standards have had the impact they were meant to, but OSHA is unquestionably having an impact.

I'll leave this with one final thought on this topic (for now at least), if we're so totally ineffective, why do the US Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers (amongst others), work so hard to get rid of us?

As for the studies that show an increase in declining rates, that will have to wait (if it ever happens) I don't really have the time to go back through all of the journals to find them. If anyone knows of specific articles, forward them to me and I'll post them.

By the way, I agree that we, as an agency, are too small.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Is OSHA a Paper Tiger?

Is OSHA a Paper Tiger? I received two different comments with two different perspectives on that very question:
"Good safety is good business. That's the bottom line. Good companies realize that; bad ones don't or don't give a shit. It's critical to distinguish between the two groups.

OSHA is a paper tiger. What really gets executives' attention is insurance costs, bad press, and downtime from accidents.

OSHA's had almost no impact on injury rates and none on fatality rates -- the trend lines of lower rates go all the way back to the 1930s, and if you look at that chart, OSHA's creation and existence has no effect at all. None."
And the counter:
"Having worked for OSHA for more than thirty years, I frequently wondered how much impact the agency had/has on positively affecting worker health and safety on a day to day basis.

In my life after OSHA (working both in consulting and industry). I can tell you that the mere presence of the agency, and the negative connotations associated with and OSHA enforcement action, broadly drives a tremendous amount of safety improvement. Yes, no one wants to hurt people; but often that isn't enough motivation to do the things that need to be done."
Those were followed up with this:
"There are plenty of companies out there that protect their workers far better than the Agency protects us. How ironic --not to mention pathetic-- is that...?"
People need to get a little perspective. First, anyone who thinks OSHA is just a paper tiger is an idiot. Second, anyone who thinks OSHA makes a huge impact, is an idiot. The statement from the first commenter "OSHA's creation and existence has no effect at all. None." is just plain wrong, there have been enough studies that show both injury and fatality rates declined at a greater rate after the creation of the agency. I'm certainly not going to suggest that we are the great cure to the countries safety and health woes, but we are having an impact.

The third comment is the one that frustrates me the most. Get this though your heads people OSHA IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR WORKPLACE SAFETY AND HEALTH! Employers are. That's right, we have chosen, as a country, to make employers responsible for their employees safety and health. How could we possibly be expected to inspect over 7.5 million job sites, with only 1,000 CSHOs? Read the OSHA Act of 1970, specifically:

SEC. 5. Duties
(a) Each employer --

(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;

(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

The Duty to Protect employees falls squarely on the shoulder of business, not OSHA. OSHA's responsibility is to promulgate standards and ensure that employers follow those standards.

This does not mean that OSHA has been perfect in carrying out our duties, clearly we have had/continue to have, issues. All you have to do is read earlier posts of this blog or the OSHA Underground blog to see that those of us who work for the agency have our frustrations with the way things are done. For that matter, future posts will probably be dedicated to the frustrations we all feel about how the Agency operates.

Finally, this comment:
"When was the last time a CSHO got a hearing test as part of "standard operating procedure" so to speak for surveillance?????"
CSHOs are supposed to get an annual physical, which includes a hearing test. If you're a CSHO and haven't been getting a hearing test as part of your annual physical, you need to tell your AD and the appropriate ARA. If they refuse to do anything, get in touch with the Medical Officer in the national office and let them know what's going on. You should be getting this test.