Workplace Safety Experts Testify on OSHA's Role

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should work more cooperatively with businesses and expand compliance assistance programs to help employers have the safest workplaces possible, industry experts said at a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on Feb. 27.

"Workplace safety is the responsibility, and should be a chief priority, of all businesses," said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee's Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

Staying compliant with OSHA standards, however, is a challenge for employers. "While OSHA has standards that provide employees with workplace protections across many industries, employers are continuously struggling to comply with the ever-changing standards and new regulations released by OSHA every year," Byrne said.

OSHA's policies cover about 130 million workers at more than 8 million worksites. The agency's mission is to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

Cooperation

The subcommittee heard testimony from business owners and workplace safety experts about how OSHA can be more effective.

"A more collaborative OSHA should be the goal," said Eric Hobbs, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee. He was speaking on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Instead of seeing employers as the opposition, OSHA needs to treat employers as partners, he said. "Employers are the ones held accountable for compliance with regulations and interpretations, and their views therefore deserve respect."

Improving workplace safety is a critical goal that is shared by stakeholders on all sides, Hobbs added. The debate generally centers on what role OSHA should play and on what would make OSHA most effective.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Effective Safety Management Programs]

"As a small-business owner, I take very seriously the health and safety of all workers on a jobsite," said Gary Hill, a residential construction business owner in Greensboro, N.C., who testified on behalf of the National Association of Home Builders.

"I genuinely care about them and want them to be safe from the moment they pick up their hammers in the morning to when they load up their tools at night," he told the subcommittee.

Residential construction is heavily regulated. Business owners try hard to comply with the requirements but the rules aren't always easy to understand or implement, Hill said. This is especially true for small businesses that don't have designated safety specialists on staff.

"We want OSHA to be a partner, not an adversary," he added. "It is OSHA's duty to issue regulations and enforce them—and bad actors that refuse to comply should unequivocally be held accountable—but enforcement should not come at the cost of compliance assistance."

Hill recommended that OSHA:

  • Work more closely with trade associations and their members.
  • Identify new opportunities to engage employers in achieving compliance.
  • Improve communication about compliance assistance programs.

Enforcement

Proponents of strong OSHA enforcement efforts said such efforts encourage compliance. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., called for higher penalties for OSHA violations. While workplace fatalities have declined since the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed in 1970, there are still 14 work-related deaths every day, he noted. "The minimum OSHA penalty for a fatality investigation in 2016 was a mere $6,500. For most employers, this is not nearly enough to cause a meaningful change in behavior," Takano said.

David Michaels, the assistant secretary for occupational safety and health under former President Barack Obama, said the agency must focus on both compliance assistance and enforcement. "Enforcement drives employer participation in compliance assistance programs," he said.

 

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