OSHA's Enforcement Strategy

The bottom line, and the statistics so indicate, is that enforcement activity remains OSHA's main focus.

OSHA's injury, illness, and inspection rates for 2001 lend credence to its stance that strict enforcement of standards, along with intensive education and development of alliances in the business community, is the winning prescription for the safety and health of American workers. Although under the Bush Administration OSHA has seen a number of its major initiatives either stalled or totally derailed (the ergonomics standard is an example), OSHA's commitment to ensuring employers provide and maintain a safe and healthful work environment for the worker is undiminished. Business organizations should understand that OSHA views a "strong, fair, and effective" enforcement policy as essential to ensuring employers actually do promote and maintain such a safe and healthful work environment.

By the Numbers
The numbers are on the side of OSHA: Strong enforcement of valid safety standards has proven to have a tremendous impact on the work environment. Since OSHA was established in 1971, workplace fatalities have been cut in half and injury/illness rates have declined by 40 percent. These decreases were achieved in spite of the fact that U.S. employment numbers for the same period doubled (56 million to more than 111 million workers).

And this remarkable trend continues when more recent history is examined. If you look at OSHA's most recent statistics and examine the time period between 1997 and 2001, you will note that total recordable injury and illness rates in the United Sates have declined by nearly 20 percent in just four short years. Further, during the same time period, the total lost workdays number declined by 15 percent. What these statistics suggest is that fewer workers are encountering workplace-related safety and/or health hazards that result in injuries and illnesses. As a complement to these declines, the worker fatality rate mirrored this trend. From 1998 through 2002, the worker fatality rate dropped a significant 11 percent. Simply put: Fewer and fewer American workers are dying on the job.

These statistics are not just numbers. They are statements reflecting both the commitment of OSHA to develop and enforce safety standards as well as the commitment of the American employer to provide a safe and healthful work environment for the employee.

OSHA's Strategic Plan
OSHA has not made its future agenda a secret. It has published and advertised its intentions when it formally announced, in May 2003, that it had developed a five-year Strategic Management Plan--a plan that has three very specific and far-reaching goals:

  • Reduce occupational hazards through direct intervention
  • Promote a safety and health culture through compliance assistance, cooperative programs, and strong leadership
  • Maximize OSHA's effectiveness and efficiency by strengthening its capabilities and infrastructure.

All three of these goals are aimed, in a broader sense, to further reduce workplace fatality rates by 15 percent and workplace injuries and illness rates by 20 percent by the end of fiscal year 2008. John Henshaw, assistant secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, was quoted in OSHA's May 2003 press release, which announced the five-year plan, as saying: "We can make a difference in the lives of working men and women in this country today. Every day, we strive to make the workplace safer for workers in this country. Our new plan will give us a clear roadmap to reach our goals." Please note: Henshaw's use of the pronoun "we" isn't referring to the business community; it is referring to OSHA and what it plans on doing. This is an important distinction to remember.

A Dose of Enforcement, Please
What has made the difference? Why the steady declines in injury, illness, and fatality rates? According to OSHA, these trends are directly attributable to a broad spectrum of programs and initiatives it has instituted in recent years. Examples of these initiatives include alliances and partnerships with such organizations as the American Society of Safety Engineers and the American Heart Association. Additionally, OSHA has produced numerous outreach programs and seminars for safety and health education, as well as its flagship program, the Voluntary Protection Program. All of these efforts are effective, needed, and welcome to both the business community and the workforce. They truly benefit all who take advantage of them and participate in them.

However, for organizations that do not develop and implement their own safety programs and take advantage of the many OSHA programs, OSHA has another program, just for such employers--it's called the enforcement program! And this program has become one of OSHA's strongest initiatives. How much importance has OSHA placed on enforcement? A quick look at the 2003 inspection numbers versus the 2002 levels says it all. Inspections were up by nearly 6 percent. Looking at "targeted" and identified high-risk workplaces, inspections were up more than 9 percent. In looking at OSHA's total inspection numbers from 1999 through 2003, one would see an increase of more than 15 percent.

What does this mean to the employer? The answer may be found in the end result of these inspections: violations cited. For the period 2002 through 2003, OSHA citations to employers increased by 7.6 percent. During the past five years, the increase was above 10 percent. Of further note, OSHA has classified more of these violations as willful or serious than ever before. For example, from 2002 through 2003, willful violations went up more than 22 percent, and serious violations jumped by more than 11 percent. For the employer, this has a tremendous financial impact: By the end of 2002, OSHA slapped employers with more than $72 million in penalties.

OSHA's enforcement actions are going to continue. It is not going to go away. Additionally--and OSHA has made no secret of this--if you are on one of its "targeted" lists, fully expect to receive a visit. Like a good doctor who prescribes the right medication to treat a specific ailment, OSHA is targeting specific industries that have known track records for safety and health problems. If you are on one of the following lists, be prepared for a visit from the safety doctor:

  • Landscape and horticultural services
  • Oil and gas field services
  • Canned, frozen, and preserved fruits, vegetables, and food specialties
  • Concrete and concrete products
  • Steel works, blast furnaces, and rolling and finishing mills
  • Ship and boat building and repair
  • Public warehousing and storage

If your organization is on this list or has had a significant increase in its injury or illness rate, take appropriate steps now to improve your safety and health programs before OSHA makes a visit.

There seems little question OSHA is, indeed, having a positive impact on the American work environment. The numbers are there. OSHA has been able to do this by implementing creative and effective programs, both in the educational and partnership areas. Not only do such programs and partnerships work, but also they are the right things to do.

However--and all employers should take note--you have been forewarned. If you fail to take these steps and fail to provide a safe and healthful work environment based on OSHA standards, OSHA will inspect, cite, and penalize your organization. OSHA's prescription can both be painful and costly.

And, for the potentially naïve organization that believes OSHA has become a warmer and more business-friendly entity, please note that in all of its publications OSHA consistently emphasizes its enforcement plans and activities. Yes, it is true OSHA offers a myriad of programs designed to assist the business community in developing appropriate plans, programs, and guidelines; that it offers voluntary programs and consultation services; and that it constantly forms business alliances with health, safety, and general business groups. The bottom line, and the statistics so indicate, is that enforcement activity is, and remains, OSHA's main focus.

Indeed, as mentioned in the five-year plan, direct intervention (enforcement) is the very first goal outlined and defined. Question is, how good is your safety program? Are you ready for the new OSHA?

The Future: Increase The Dose
One final note. In 2003, U.S. Senate Bill S. 1272, titled the Wrongful Death Accountability Act, was sponsored by Senators Corzine, Clinton, and Kennedy. If enacted, it would place some heavy penalties at OSHA's discretion. Besides altering the fine schedules to allow for heftier penalties, the bill would open the door for OSHA to prosecute those it feels are responsible for gross negligence in providing a safe workplace by adding the potential for prison time for as much as 20 years!

If the fines don't make you sit up and take safety (and OSHA) seriously, this should. It is time for every organization, large or small, to take safety seriously.


  1. OSHA Enforcement Remains Strong, Fair, and Effective. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on Jan. 10, 2004 at: www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/fy2003-enforcement-factsheet.pdf.
  2. OSHA Facts. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on Dec. 8, 2003 at: www.osha.gov/as/opa/oshafacts.html.
  3. OSHA Industry Concentrations for FY 2003-FY 2004. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on Jan. 10, 2004 at: www.osha.gov/StratPlanPublic/How_the_seven_industries_were_chosen.html.
  4. OSHA Trade News Release. OSHA's 2003-2008 Strategic Management Plan Goals: 15 Percent Drop in Fatality Rates, 20 Percent Drop in Injury and Illness Rates by 2008. Washington DC: United States Department of Labor, Office of Public Affairs, May 12, 2003.
  5. United States Senate Bill S. 1272. Wrongful Death Accountability Act. United States Senate, Washington DC, June 17, 2003.

This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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