OSHA Shifts Focus Away From Cooperation Toward Enforcement

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has announced the Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2011. Notice the important item in the announcement:

Under this budget, the department expects to hire more than 350 new employees, including 177 investigators and other enforcement staff…

The budget reflects a clear shift in focus away from cooperative agreements that assist employers in understanding sometimes arcane and always complex health and safety regulations. Don’t take our word: Solis declared that “Today’s budget affirms this administration’s strong commitment to vigorous enforcement.”

Some items of interest come from an observer:

  • Direct funding of Voluntary Protection Programs is being significantly reduced and shifted from cooperative programs to enforcement programs.
  • 35 people have been moved from cooperative programs to enforcement. OSHA director Dr. David Michaels said that they will work to identify new or alternative sources of funding for VPP.
  • In addition to those 35 workers, 25 enforcement investigators will be hired this year (for a total of 60 new investigators). They expect to do 42,250 federal OSHA inspections this year –with more than 2,500 of these a result of the newly hired CSHO’s.

The Bureau of National Affairs’ Daily Labor Report has this:

President Obama Feb. 1 proposed a $573 million budget for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for fiscal year 2011, a 2.7 percent increase over the $558 million in fiscal 2010, but Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the budget would include “significant” cuts to the agency’s Voluntary Protection Program.

BNA reports that while enforcement will increase, “compliance assistance program would be the only OSHA program to receive less money than in fiscal 2010, falling 4.1 percent…” The increase in enforcement resources is even more striking where the overall discretionary component of the DOL budget is being reduced by $300 million.

Of course, everyone is for enforcement in situations where employers have not fulfilled their obligations to protect their employees from workplace hazards. That’s why there is the Site-Specific Targeting plan, in which the Agency can focus its limited resources toward maximizing its return and achieving the likeliest safety improvements.

But limited resources is a natural concern for any entity, not the least of which is an organization like OSHA. No matter how much money and resources OSHA is able to get from Congress, they will never have enough to put a compliance officer in every workplace so that enforcement is the effective mechanism for improving workplace safety as this administration believes it can be. Think of this like the question of speeding—there will never be enough police on the highways to catch every driver who is speeding.

So OSHA must find ways to leverage their resources to help more employers improve their workplace safety practices beyond merely expanding enforcement, just as state police departments post billboards to convince drivers of the hazards of driving too fast. So it’s troubling to note that resources appear to be shifting away from the highly successful voluntary programs in which employers can receive direct consultation on ways to improve the safety of their establishments.

Consider for a moment the success of the VPP, which was started in 1983 to implement comprehensive safety and health management systems in workplaces. In order for an employer to be considered for participation in VPP, it must have a “Days Away Restricted or Transferred (DART) case rate of 52% below the average for its industry.” The company must go through a rigorous approval process by OSHA before it can obtain VPP status. More than 2,000 companies have become part of the VPP program.

Those are 2,000 actively working to make safe workplaces.But fewer will be helped as resources are shifted, so even well-intentioned employers may increasingly — but unintentionally — violate OSHA regulations.

This shift of resources by OSHA will not help employers, and especially small businesses, improve workplace safety

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  1. […] we have reported recently, the Administration is seeking to cut the budget of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection […]

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