Dividing Could Conquer

I'D be the last person to recommend betting the house on an unscientific poll, but some of them are useful. It seems you and I agree: OSHA should divide into two separate units, one for enforcement and the other to perform consulting functions.

A 2004 strategy document issued by Britain's Health and Safety Commission shows the way. The strategy committed the Health & Safety Executive (Britain's OSHA agency) to provide "accessible channels of advice." HSE then asked small businesses how it could improve communications with them. Just like American business owners, they said they don't ask HSE for help because they fear enforcement action will follow. When HSE announced it was studying the option of severing its consultation and enforcement functions, our Web site asked visitors whether OSHA should follow suit. Twelve said yes, one said it probably should, and only one said no.

Cooperation and partnerships have been OSHA's priorities in recent years. Congress and industry like its approach, but partnerships don't instill safety where it is needed most, in the smallest companies. Having a separate safety agency that does nothing but train, consult, and advise would help.

The obvious drawback to splitting OSHA in two is that Congress or the president could deny funding to the enforcement side. I doubt this would happen, however. True, some members of Congress and some business groups despise OSHA, but they have failed to enact major reforms or cripple its budget. OSHA had $457 million in funding for fiscal 2004 and at this writing could expect $461 million or $468 million for fiscal 2005.

HSE said the "modern industrial landscape" argues for a split because more than 90 percent of all UK businesses employ fewer than 10 people. "If they fear contact with HSE or (local authorities) and existing channels do not reach or influence them, we are missing a huge opportunity and potential for safety and health gain," the British agency said in September. "It is essential, therefore, that we extend our reach, improve the take-up of advice and guidance we offer, and stimulate others to give better coverage."

Complete separation would require new legislation, major organizational changes, and new costs that may not be feasible, HSE cautioned, adding, "The challenge is to provide support that is authoritative, proportionate and cost effective without compromising HSE's or LAs' role as enforcers, or duty holders' full ownership of their legal responsibilities."

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

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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