Safe and Sound: Of Carrots and Sticks

Workers concerned about safety and health in the workplace are heading for some rough days ahead with the current administration and Confined Space will be there all the way, through thick and thin. We will undoubtedly have many harsh – but deserved — things to say about OSHA policy.  But I never want it to be said that I never had anything nice to say about the current administration. So here goes (with a small caveat):

Last year, under the Obama administration, federal OSHA finally updated its outdated, but much used, 1989 Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines. OSHA issued Recommended Practices for Health and Safety Programs in general industry last October, and Recommended Practices for the construction industry  were issued last December.  The 1989 guidelines and the current recommended practices are not only important for small and large employers who want to establish safety and health programs or improve the ones they already have, but the elements of these program are also mandated by participants in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) and Safety & Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP), and are important parts of OSHA settlements with employers.

The OSHA recommendations include seven core elements for a safety and health program: management leadership; worker participation; hazard identification and assessment; hazard prevention and control; education and training; program evaluation and improvement; and communication and coordination for host employers, contractors and staffing agencies.

But just publishing recommended practices isn’t enough. OSHA immediately began working on its “Safe and Sound” campaign to ensure that workers and businesses across the country were aware of the guidance and had the tools to put them into place in their workplaces. And the agency is promoting “Safety and Sound Week,” June 12-18.  And although OSHA has stopped issued enforcement-related press releases, OSHA Region VII is the first of OSHA’s ten regions to announce their participation in national “Safe and Sound” week. I have full confidence that other Regions will follow.

So good work.

Just one somewhat snarky — but important — side-note: OSHA, under the Obama administration, had often been mis-characterized as engaging in a confrontational “all enforcement/no compliance assistance” war against employers. As I’ve said numerous times before, nothing could be further from the truth. For those employers — small and large — who wanted to do the right thing, OSHA has always produced, funded and promoted resources and programs to assist them. Nevertheless, not only does the myth persist, but the Recommended Practices and the Safe and Sound Campaign, which originated under the Obama administration, are now being credited by at least one law firm, as an indication of the Trump Administration’s “more cooperative approach to worker safety and health issues. Whether this news release and these associated webpages signal a change in the overall approach OSHA will take under President Trump’s new Administration is yet to be seen.  But this is not the tone we have seen from OSHA in the last several years.”

Actually, for those who were paying attention, this is exactly the tone — and products and programs — that we have seen from OSHA in the last several years.

So, while I want to give credit and praise to the new administration for continuing this important program, it’s also important to recognize that safe workplaces do not just happen because OSHA issues recommended practices and sponsors a safety week, any more than safe driving happens just because drivers take driver training classes and read their AAA magazine.

Without a cop on the beat, the best, truly committed employers will continue to do the right thing. But those whose safety and health programs consist of “luck” or “hope” that nothing bad will happen, or an expectation that OSHA will most likely never get around to inspecting their workplace,  a strong enforcement program is necessary to ensure that they work with their employees and invest in making their workplaces safe.

Sometimes all you need is a carrot to get the horse to do the right thing, but all too often, even after you’ve led a horse to water, you need a stick to get him to drink.

And you can quote me on that.

Enforcement OSHA workplace safety and health programs

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