OSHA's Enforcement Strategy
The bottom line, and the statistics so indicate, is that enforcement activity remains OSHA's main focus.
- By Scott A. Kuebler, Ph.D., CHSP, CHS-III, CECD
- Dec 01, 2004
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
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
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
- 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.
- OSHA Facts. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on Dec. 8, 2003 at: www.osha.gov/as/opa/oshafacts.html.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.