Sunday, June 27, 2010


PAWA, aka Protecting America's Workers Act, aka H. R. 2067. I finally had a chance to read through PAWA today and what I read was both good and bad. The bill has some 20 plus sections, of which I thought 10 were significant. One part, Section 203, I didn't bother reading, it has to do with discrimination, which is something I don't know much about (for those who may not know, OSHA uses specialized investigators to look into discrimination complaints, CSHOs don't generally investigate these).

I don't know if PAWA is ever going to go through, I doubt it will happen this year, and the version I've read isn't necessarily going to be the final version, after all the Senate hasn't had a chance to change it yet. Having said that, here are the 9 sections that caught my attention and my first thoughts:

Sec 101: Coverage of Public Employees. Good.
Finally, all public sector employees would be covered. I think one of the undiscussed aspects of this section is that Federal agencies would finally have to pay their penalties, instead of having theoretical fines only. Maybe, just maybe, if the habitual offenders lose part of their operating budget, they'll start to take S&H more seriously.
Sec 102: Application of Act. Good.
This section changes our preemption due to coverage by other federal agencies. If I'm reading this correctly, and I gladly admit I'm not a lawyer so I might be wrong, but it appears to bring a lot of private sector employees who weren't covered by OSHA, under OSHA coverage. As an example, right now we are preempted from covering flight attendants while on board the aircraft because the FAA has claimed jurisdiction. But the FAA has no S&H rules for flight attendants, and it certainly doesn't enforce anything, so I think we would now have coverage over the fight attendants.

I think this goes even deeper, I think it means that any place we are currently preempted from inspecting will no longer be exempted from our coverage unless and until another federal agency has demonstrated that its regulations are at least as effective AND we have reviewed the standards, agreed with them, and published our agreement in the Federal Register. If I'm reading this correctly, this is big. We've never investigated acts of violence, are we going to now?
Sec 304: Investigations of Fatalities and Serious Incidents. Good (and finally).
This section seems to finally make tampering with evidence a criminal act, although I can't tell what the penalty would be.
Sec 305: Prohibition on Unclassified Citations. Neutral.
I never liked the “Unclassified” classification of citations, but they helped to settle cases (usually for full penalty and with no dropped violations) so once everyone started recognizing that “Unclassified” was just code for Willful, I stopped worrying about it. I just don't see this as a big deal either way.
Sec 306: Victim's Rights. Bad.
In my May 12 post “Bad Ideas” I expressed my discomfort with having employee representatives present during management interviews, I think it leads to bad inspections, well I think the same would true if this section is included in the final bill. I'm not philosophically opposed to victim's rights, and I think as an agency we do a poor job communicating with victims and their families, but involving them in settlement negotiations changes the dynamics in the room so dramatically that I foresee only problems.

I see four possibilities:

1) Employers contest more cases. If the employer objects to a violation then that part of the citation is up for negotiation, which the victims won't generally want the Agency to give up. This means that if the AD agrees with the victim, the company contests and we go to trial.

2) Victims demand hearings. If the employer objects to a violation then that part of the citation is up for negotiation, which the victims won't generally want the Agency to give up. This means that if the AD agrees with the company, the victim will demand a hearing.

3) Both the employer and victim want to go before a judge. The AD sides with the victim on some issues and the employer on others. Neither side is happy and both want to go before a judge.

4) CSHOs write fewer violations per inspection. It's possible that many CSHOs will only write violations where they know the employer won't vocalize an objection so neither side can object to the outcome. That's good for the employer, not so good for S&H at the job site.

But it also puts the AD in position of being an arbitrator, of making decisions not based on good S&H or law, but on which path causes the least resistance. It's pretty easy to envision scenarios where the victims lawyers is sitting in the room questioning, pontificating, and submitting statements solely for the purpose of setting up his lawsuit, which puts us in the middle of something we shouldn't be in the middle of.

Part of my problem with this section is practical (see above) and part of it is philosophical. The OSH Act places the burden of workplace safety and health on each employer. It places the burden of ensuring compliance with safety and health standards on OSHA. Citations are an action between an employer and the US Government, employees where never intended to be part of the enforcement of the Act.
Sec 308. Abatement of Serious Hazards During Employer Contests to a Citation. Good, maybe.
The sections allows OSHA to inspect and issue citations to a company even if the company has citations currently under contest. This could get complicated and seems to raise a lot of questions;

Can we cite the same location for the same violation on the same piece of equipment (machine guards, for example)? What about if it's the same violation on a different, but identical, piece of equipment at the site? What if it's the same standard but totally different equipment? What if it's the same company, identical equipment, but a different site?

What happens if:

1) I issue a citation to a company and the company contests;

2) Another CSHO in a different AO issues the same citation under the same conditions to the same company at a different site owned by the company, before my case is settled

3) My citation is then vacated.

Is the second citation automatically vacated? What if mine was vacated because I failed to identify an exposed employee but the other CSHO did identify one? What happens if mine is tossed because the process is covered by construction instead of general industry but the second site already agreed to the citation and paid the penalty?

This one could get ugly.
Sec 309. Objections to Modification of Citations. Bad.
See my arguments for Sec 306.
Sec 310. Civil Penalties. Good.
This is the section that seems to be getting a lot of attention, but to me it's one of the least important of the 9 sections (10 sections if you include the discrimination). Yes, it's generally good that the penalties go up, and it's even better that there is a built in inflation adjustment, but to me penalties just aren't the end-all-be-all of an inspection. Suppose I cite a pair of trenching companies for not shoring or sloping a trench. If I know company A will use a trench box every time from now on, I'm OK with a $1 penalty. If I know company B will continue to put their employees in deep trenches with no protection, I'm OK with a high enough penalty that they go out of business.
Sec 311. OSHA Criminal Penalties. Good.
I say “good” with a certain trepidation. I'm OK with putting certain employers in prison, some of them belong there*, but I'm not sure how this will work. Our burden of proof is “preponderance of evidence,” a legal bar significantly below “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is where we will have to get for any criminal penalties. I assume that the Dept. of Justice would handle those cases, but since we have no real working relation with them and no experience with “beyond a reasonable doubt,” I foresee difficulties.

On a previous post, on anonymous commenter said:

“I see a lot of good safety people trying very hard to do their jobs, and due to "risk takers" accidents occur. I wouldn't want to have that type of liablity. I expect that you will see alot of good safety officers rethink their current roles.”

I don't think that's necessarily true. First, if you're an honest S&H manager (as I believe the overwhelming majority are) all you need to do is document everything. If you tell your operations manager that employees need to wear supplied air respirators before they go into the tank that used to hold ammonia and he sends people in wearing dust masks, as long as you've documented your recommendations, he's the one who is going to jail when we do our fatality investigation, not you.

Even when we cite Willful now, we have to show a high level of indifference by the employer towards the employees safety and health. If we go to criminal penalties, we'll have to show an even higher level of disregard for employee safety and health.

If you go back umpteen years, when EPA was given this kind of authority the environmental people all worried about the same thing, but if you look at the criminal convictions based on EPA laws, very few environmental managers go to jail, it's the bosses who ignore them who do the time. Not only are the environmental people not going to jail often, but this lead to a huge growth in the number of companies that directly hired environmental specialists as well as the number of environmental specialist hired by consulting companies. I think the same would happen for S&H.

Do the right thing and you'll be OK.

* When I say some employers belong in jail, it's a very small percentage, maybe 1-2% of the employers we deal with, and we mostly deal with the worst of the employers.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Safety and Health at BP

What must it be like to be an industrial hygienist or safety specialist for BP right now?

You probably thought by the headline that I was going to bash BP on their safety record like everyone else, didn't you? Well I'm not going to do that, enough people are doing that already. Nor am I going to try defend the indefensible, but what of the honest people who work for BP?

I realize that no body trusts BP right now, and justifiably so, but I don't believe for one second that everyone who works for BP is as dishonest as the senior managers and board of directors seem to be. So what of the good people who work for BP?

What must it be like if you're an honest safety & health professional working for a company with a history of disregarding S&H, who is part of one of the greatest environmental disasters in human history, and whom everyone hates?

Do those S&H professional feel a sense of responsibility for the leak? I hope they don't feel responsible for the leak itself, after all, none of them were on the rig making the decision to bypass safety protocols. But I do hope they feel responsible for BP's actions and feel the need to to do the right thing and see this through to the end, there are a lot of workers out there cleaning up the spill and those people shouldn't become victims as well.

But what about after this is all over, then what? Do they stay? Do they leave? My hope is that they stay. I know the stress of working where you aren't appreciated, yet I do it anyway because I think it's right. I hope they stay because they think they can make a difference, and I hope they can make a difference, after all that's something most of us want in life, to make a difference.

What must it be like?


People constantly disappoint me. I have left the comment section open so anyone could post a comment without my interference, but I did so with the hope that people would be respectful, but the Trolls have proven that civility is beyond their capability, so I have closed the comments down. For those who choose to participate and agree to be respectful I'll post your comments when I can. Keep in mind that respectful doesn't mean you have to agree with me or OSHA, you just have to frame your questions/complaints/comments in a thoughtful way.