A number of people whom I respect and admire as human beings and as workers believe that OSHA—the Occupational Safety & Health Administration—does far more harm than good in the workplace.
And I know there is some truth in their earnest harangecdotes—if you've heard a dozen, you've heard them all—about silly and productivity-killing OSHA rules and the officious OSHA marplots who enforce them. These folks are not arguing for less safety. They want more intelligent regulation.
And at the same time, we all know—or at least we should know—that the days before OSHA were not civilized times.
Now, we can't expect plant foremen and project managers hog-tied by hundreds and thousands of OSHA regs to gracefully accept everyday bureaucratic annoyances and maddening work-flow interruptions by being ever mindful of the Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.
But at the same time, one must avoid being caught looking even the slightest bit (figuratively or literally) like Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, seen last Labor Day—months before 29 of his employees were killed in a Massey mine—saying that the regulations imposed by the OSHA mining-specific counterpart, the Mine Safety & Health Administration, are "as silly as global warming."
Here's the deal about worker safety: We have seen what happens when its regulation is left up to the employers. So if you're an employer and you don't like how it's being regulated by the government, you really have only two morally defensible choices, it seems to me:
Find and strenuously recommend better ways of going about safety regulation. Or keep your mouth shut and follow the stupid OSHA rules.
Postscript. Here's the wizened response of "an old has-been construction guy that's sniffed too much paint":
Just a little clarification: As you likely know, there are two distinct government groups, OSHA and MSHA, the latter being the Mine Safety and Health Admin. The mining industry has such a distinct difference with the types of hazards that are addressed, there are two separate groups. The mines fall under MSHA and any construction we do at a mine site also falls under them, so we need to understand the rules for each. Some differences are obvious; underground activity must be governed differently than above ground. Coal has extreme methane hazards, etc. However there are ridicules differences such as any work over 6’ requires personal fall protection to be worn, per OSHA. But under MSHA the requirement is at the discretion of the inspector. I know of an MSHA citation where the contractor was fined for having a worker standing on a flat bed trailer that was 4.5’ above ground and not wearing tie off protection. Tie off to what I’m not sure. The point being there is indeed a stupid side. Anyway, back to your point.
It is common knowledge in our industry that when the Democrats (labor’s party) are in power OSHA is empowered, when the Republicans (management’s party) are in, the funding gets cut; so things are currently on the up-swing. In the words of Sec of Labor Hilda Solis, “There’s a new sheriff in town”. The current Acting Head of OSHA, Jordon Barab, echoes her words. He is also co-author of “Cooking the Books” an article about how to catch contractors who don’t report accidents correctly and shame on them if they just don’t understand the process. Like all things both harmful and good, the proverbial pendulum swings.
All that voiced, do I believe that OSHA is needed, of course. Do I believe there is a lot of over-kill, of course.
As contractors we get rated. A recordable accident is one that requires hospital, prescription drugs, stitches, lost time from doing one’s “normal” job, and the like. Non-recordable is a common first aid requiring a cleanup and band-aid, icing, heating, etc., but you go back to work the same day, no lost time. Your incident rate is the number of recordables per 200,000 man hours. Our Industrial Construction industry norm is around 5 but we strive for less than 2. This rate affects our ability to get or even bid some types of work. So some people (not me of course) used to “manage” the small stuff. But no more. If OSHA comes in and starts quizzing your workers and someone says yes to, “was it ever suggested that you really don’t need to go see a doc for this or that, just take a couple aspirin and we’ll see how it looks tomorrow” it could be an automatic “willful” recordable and the fine might be in the $10’s of thousands; when if you would have just reported it as a recordable it would have been no fine.
So the system promotes misbehavior or at least a little distortion, but in today’s world simple misbehavior can be costly. If OSHA turns up one of those kinds of events they will go through every project your company has had for the past 3 years. Every possible “managed” event becomes a recordable and a large fine. So needless to say they are targeting the big guys with deep pockets. However, if a small contractor gets caught (say a disgruntled employee calls OSHA and just suggests an impropriety) telling the clinic doc that wants to prescribe Percocet instead of ibuprofen something like, “are you sure ibuprofen isn’t satisfactory for this problem” he will be deemed trying to influence the doc and they will dig into him in the same way and could quite possibly bankrupt him along the way.
So probably things are too political right now and the whole accident management issue is in upheaval and we are all scrambling to get our arms around it. Innocent contractors will get hurt, and some bad guys will get caught. So what’s new!? But what I find more interesting and quite hypocritical is: we all and probably Hilda as well, send our kids out onto the sports field daily knowing that they will probably come back bloody and maybe even with a few stitches (with most of us secretly saying, that’s my little man, what a kid) and think nothing of it. Then we go to work the next day, in one of the most hazardous industries going, and expect to tally up 200,000 man hours with little more than a few band aid events. When and how do we make our workers accountable for themselves? Why are our expectations so out of whack? Why do we need to run around behind them ready to catch them if they stumble? Where do you cross the line expecting strong productivity factors at the risk of safety? I, as Site Manager, spend around 50% of my time on safety issues; when do I get to manage the construction? I suspect this pendulum will continue to swing forever or until we can have all manual labor performed by robots. And then we can set up a new governmental agency to develop an ASSA (Armchair Social Safety Admin).
As with all things political, I suppose we could talk about this forever. But for what it’s worth, that my perspective today. Tomorrow I’m sure it will change.