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The View from Inside OSHA

a detective in profileWho was the best leader of OSHA and why? Is the agency doing a good job managing its budget and its workforce? Lots of outsiders offer suggestions for "fixing" OSHA, but what flaws do its own employees see, and how would they fix them? Last month, OH&S Editor Jerry Laws asked two rival bloggers who are OSHA employees -- OSHA Underground's Kane and OSHA Aboveground's Abel -- 30 questions about OSHA's effectiveness, its best leader to date and who should now take command, and how employees are affected by the snail's pace of regulations.

Kane and Able portray OSHA quite differently in their blogs, but their ratings and analysis are surprisingly similar here. Visit their blogs, and you'll quickly notice the differences. You'll see other OSHA insiders offering their opinions in their comments on big enforcement cases, National Emphasis Programs, congressional hearings and appropriations, other safety blogs, and plenty of other topics.

You are currently employed by OSHA, correct?

Kane: Yes.

Abel: Yes.

Please summarize your career with the agency.

Kane: We keep our privacy secret, so no questions or responses on that area.

Abel: I have been with OSHA for over 20 years.

Why did you decide to join OSHA in the first place, and what job were you doing previously?

Kane: We like the mission.

Abel: I joined OSHA because I needed a job. I graduated from college and really didn't even know what OSHA did, but they were the first to offer me a job, I took it, and I'm glad I did.

What's the current state of morale among OSHA's employees? Is it better or worse than when you first arrived?

Kane: It is not one of comparison. In the 70's, it was new and exciting. The change since Foulke left is amazing.

Abel: I think it is better today. I came to the agency under Reagan, not too long after he decimated the agency, cutting something like 40% of the agency staff (I don't know the exact number). I also think it is much better today than it was one year ago, there is hope and maybe even anticipation that maybe we can do our jobs now.

What's your assessment of OSHA's effectiveness at:

Enforcement:

Kane: Good.

Abel: The answer is complex, I think our enforcement is as effect as politicians will allow it to be. We don't set our penalty structure, we don't set our staffing levels, we don't control the barriers to rulemaking, we don't even get to set safety and health policy (lawyers do). We do have a lot of dedicated, intelligent people who believe in what we do, and we do as well as can be expected considering there fewer than 1,000 CSHOs and over 7.5 million work sites.

Training:

Kane: Good.

Abel: I think our training used to be very good, but a combination of budget cuts and online courses have weakened it. Our training topics can be very technically complex, and they just do not translate well to distance learning. We need the interaction with instructors and the chance to share experiences with other students.

Hiring and promotions:

Kane: Uneven under Foulke.

Abel: I think we do an excellent job with initial hires, but only a fair job with promotions. We've all seen people get promotions that absolutely deserve it, but we've also seen too many people get promotions that don't deserve it. It's a mixed bag.

Outreach:

Kane: Good.

Abel: Overall I think our effectiveness with outreach is good, but it can be pretty variable. Much of our outreach is done by the local Area Office. Some Area Offices are very good, some, not as good. I think much of the OSHA website is very good, although it can be a bit redundant, not always as current as it should be, and somewhat difficult for inexperienced users to navigate.

State plan oversight:

Kane: Uneven.

Abel: I'm not familiar enough with state plan oversight to comment.

Customer service:

Kane: Good.

Abel: One of the great debates in the 90’s within OSHA was, "Who are our customers?" I'm not sure our customers have ever been adequately defined. I do think that in general we respond well to most complaints and that most people who call for assistance with regulations or information do get the help they need. As much as I criticize the last administration for how they treated OSHA and workers, I think one very positive thing was the development of more information and tools for businesses. The flip side is that it takes too long for letters of interpretation to go through the National Office.

Relations with DOL secretary/White House:

Kane: Solis looks promising.

Abel: It's too early to tell with this administration. I can say that within OSHA there was a lot of anger towards the previous administration.

Relations with employers:

Kane: Good.

Abel: Our relationships with individual businesses is all over the board, however, as a whole I don't think that the vast majority of businesses even think there is a relationship; after all, it's unlikely that OSHA will ever show up at the door.

Relations with its own employees:

Kane: Better in the last 2 months.

Abel: Overall I would say the relationship is OK, but it really depends on where the employees are. My office is great, top to bottom we work well together, but I know of offices where no one likes going to work.

Relations with safety professionals:

Kane: Could be better. OSHA does not [let] field people interact at conferences very much.

Abel: I think we have a strong relationship with outside S&H professionals, partially due to [August 2001-December 2004 OSHA Assistant Secretary] John Henshaw, although we've always had good relations with certain groups. There are individual S&H people who don't care for us because we've issued citations to their company, but I've also been thanked by safety directors for issuing citations because it helps them to convince management of the importance of the program.

Relations with regional and area offices and their personnel:

Kane: Good.

Abel: Overall I would say these relationships are pretty strong, although, as with all organizations this size, there are conflicts.

Promulgating regulations:

Kane: Horrible in the last 8 years under Bush.

Abel: Horrible, but it's not our fault. You can find my full thoughts on the February 6, 2009 post on the OSHA Aboveground blog. [Editor's note: This post, titled "Clowns to the left of me . . . ," is the source of Abel's contention, mentioned in the final two questions of this Q&A, that lawyers set U.S. safety and health policy and standards-setting works just as Congress and the White House prefer.]

Targeting high-injury employers and/or sectors:

Kane: No ergonomics, so the program is flawed with rampant cheating on the records.

Abel: I think we do OK targeting high-injury employers. The two biggest drawbacks to our current targeting system are 1) we haven't identified a better system, and; 2) we don't have an ergonomics standard to address the single biggest cause of injuries.

Addressing hazards in service industries, such as health care:

Kane: No ergonomics again.

Abel: This is one sector I think we've done very well with, especially in nursing homes, and I think the injury records demonstrate this. Perfect? Not without an ergonomics standard, but still very good.

Managing its budget:

Kane: Excellent.

Abel: Our budget has been so stripped down over the last few years that there hasn't been that much to manage, but I think they have done as well as can be expected. That doesn't mean I agree with every spending decision, but generally I think things have been handled well.

Managing its people:

Kane: Uneven. The Appraisal system is one of our four points. [Editor's note: A Feb. 23, 2009, post by Kane on Underground listed these four points to "fix" OSHA: 1. Cover all Public Workers, 2. Put Whistleblower in DoJ or another agency, 3. Change the appraisal system to a panel review, 4. Increase OSHA staffing]

Abel: Mostly good, some members of the Senior Executive Service (SES are the top-level career managers) are very good, others are mediocre. (Fortunately we don't seem to have any truly bad SES right now.)

PR:

Kane: Good.

Abel: This is one of our weakest areas, I think largely because when we are criticized we aren't really allowed to defend ourselves. Occasionally we issue a press release, but there is no real PR.

Peg Seminario, John Howard, Rep. George Miller, and others have been recommended to be the next OSHA assistant secretary. Who should get the job, and why?

Kane: We like John Howard and Jordan Barab. See our endorsement posts for them. [Editor's note: Barab is the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee's senior labor policy advisor on health and safety issues.]

Abel: I think there are several people we would be very happy with, and on top of the list for me is Dr. John Howard (I actually think he should get the CDC appointment because it would be a better use of his talents).

Who will get it?

Kane: John Howard.

Abel: As for who will get it, I'm expecting someone who hasn't even been mentioned yet, I just don't know who.

Who was the most effective OSHA assistant secretary during your years at OSHA, and why?

Kane: See our post rating each one. [Editor's note: Underground's Nov. 3, 2007, "Rating the OSHA Heads" gave Alan McMillan (April-October 1989) an A, the top grade awarded. Gerard "Jerry" Scannell (October 1989-January 1992), John Pendergrass (May 1986-March 1989), and Eula Bingham (April 1977-January 1981) received A- grades.]

Abel: Joe Dear. Despite not being one of my personal favorites, he did force a significant cultural shift within the agency. Even though we've thrown away much of what he pushed, I think we are better off now than we were before his time at OSHA.

More broadly, what skill set makes for an effective OSHA leader?

Kane: We would like the see the leader talk with the field people. Foulke treated us as if we were serfs.

Abel: I think a good OSHA leader needs the following;

1) First and foremost, experience in running a large organization;

2) A deep understanding and appreciation for safety and health;

3) A willingness to give us a clear direction and then get out of the way while we charge down the path;

4) A willingness to stand up to our own lawyers and tell them no;

5) A little charisma wouldn't hurt.

Do you believe widespread distrust of BLS injury and illness data is a problem?

Kane: Yes.

Abel: I think the distrust is a widespread problem, but a relatively minor one. The data is never as important as the people it represents.

Are the data in fact unreliable, in your opinion, and are national injury and illness rates declining only because of changes in the recordkeeping standard or in the BLS survey and estimates?

Kane: Both.

Abel: I think part of the data is reliable and part is not. I believe the incidence rate (the number of cases that occur) for injuries is reasonably close, certainly close enough for how we use the data. I think the lost time data (the number of days away from work or restricted time) is significantly underestimated but is also not as important to OSHA. I think the illness data is almost unusable.

I do not think the error is due to the change in the OSHA standard, I think the change is due to many things (the March 9, 2009 post on the OSHA Aboveground blog explains this in more detail).

If they are unreliable, how should this be fixed?

Kane: Inspect all companies in the sector, like the Refinery NEP.

Abel: It seems to me that the best way to fix the data is to give BLS enough money to do on-site visits of a small percentage of the facilities where they collect data. Actually reviewing the records on site would allow them to calculate a good estimate [of] the error in the data collection.

If they're reliable, can the distrust be overcome?

Kane: n/a

Abel: Yes, by the same method as I suggested for correcting the problem, give BLS money to do on-site evaluations.

Imagine you have the authority to rewrite the OSH Act and fund and staff OSHA's various units through Sept. 30, 2012, as you see fit. What changes would you make?

Kane: See our four points.

Abel: A partial list includes:

1) Change the makeup of the OSH Review Commission; the judges would be from the DC Circuit Court. This would both eliminate the pro/anti business/union members who are often appointed and eliminate the long period of open seats (which can prevent cases from being decided or even heard).

2) Require all state-plan-states and consultation projects to put their staffs on the same pay scale as federal OSHA, with a set amount of budget for training and equipment.

3) I would re-codify the rulemaking process to make it faster but still require adequate scientific evidence and include an ability to quick-adopt consensus standards.

4) I would increase money for both enforcement and standards making by about 10% per year (too fast of an increase can cause more problems than it solves).

5) I would expand OSHA coverage to include more agriculture and state/county/municipal employees (not necessarily by federal OSHA).

In that vein, OSHA Aboveground recently argued the U.S. safety and health standards-setting process works exactly as Congress and White House want it to work, and lawyers, not OSHA, set our safety and health policy. Should we change this state of affairs?

Kane: There is a belief that OSHA was never meant to be run by the Feds. Each state would have its own program and own rules with Fed OSHA to arbitrate between them.

Abel: As a safety & health professional, I would absolutely want to see the standard-setting process changed, people are being harmed daily because of our inability to promulgate standards. As someone who works for OSHA, I think the lawyers have to be taken out of the safety and health policy making process, they simply do not understand the public health issues. I am practical enough, however, to recognize that the person elected to the Office of President of the United States of American gets to choose our direction, our policies, and our leadership.

How does this longstanding state of affairs affect OSHA personnel?

Kane: We are numb to the delays.

Abel: I think it has chased a few people away from the agency, and it frustrates most of us, but those of us who have been around long enough recognize that, as a friend of mine likes to say, we are in this not to win battles, but to win the war. The change between today and tomorrow is unimportant, it is the change over 30 years that we are working for.

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