OSHA Steps Up the Pace with new hiring plans.
The federal agency has announced a number of regulatory priorities, including a request to hire 130 more OSHA inspectors. With states increasing their enforcement activities as well, HR leaders should ensure documentation and safety procedures are up to date. A safety audit could help locate deficiencies, experts say.
This year will be no time for slacking on the workplace-safety front, as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration continues an enforcement policy that’s far more activist than during the Bush administration.
The Obama administration is seeking an additional $50 million from Congress to finance the hiring of 130 additional OSHA inspectors. Meanwhile, the agency has announced a number of regulatory priorities that include initiatives to protect workers from exposure to airborne diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, updated regulations for crane and derrick safety, and updated rules for protecting workers from exposure to crystalline silica dust.
OSHA also plans to develop a comprehensive standard that addresses combustible dust, which was responsible for a 2008 explosion at an Imperial Sugar refinery in Georgia that killed 14 workers.
Some of the initiatives, particularly the proposed combustible-dust standard, are opposed by industry groups. Organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers contend that a combustible-dust standard is unnecessary because existing OSHA regulations are sufficient.
Ashley Brightwell, a labor and employment attorney at Alston & Bird in Atlanta who closely follows OSHA, says the Obama administration wants OSHA to become more aggressive.
“There was a perception that a lot of employers didn’t take OSHA seriously in terms of enforcement and standard-setting,” she says. “OSHA came under a lot of criticism that it was too lenient.”
The agency’s recent actions may already be changing that perception, including the record-setting $87 million fine it levied against BP last October for what it said was the company’s failure to correct hazards that led to an explosion at its Texas City, Texas, refinery killing 15 employees.
Among other activities, OSHA is also putting together a special training program for its compliance officers to focus on employers that report low injury rates in high-injury rate industries and is re-evaluating its policies, concerned that current fines and penalties are too low, says Brightwell.
Labor groups such as the AFL-CIO have long complained that the punishments levied against employers for safety violations are insufficient. Bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (the law that created OSHA) to substantially increase the penalties for violations.
OSHA is also becoming increasingly reluctant to bargain with employers over the violations, she says.
“In the past, employers have often been successful in getting ‘willful violations’ downgraded to ‘unclassified,’ which makes the settlement much more palatable for the employer,” says Brightwell, because fines are usually reduced and criminal charges are not filed.
“But OSHA has gone on record as saying that from now on, unclassified violations will be granted much less frequently than in the past,” she says.
Greg Dale, a partner at Baker & Daniels in Indianapolis, says state safety agencies are also stepping up their enforcement activities due, at least in part, to federal pressure.
“There’s been quite an increase in compliance enforcement and less focus on cooperative programs between safety agencies and employers,” he says.
Considering that stepped-up enforcement by OSHA and its state counterparts will be a fact of life for the foreseeable future, Dale advises HR leaders to ensure their organizations’ safety and training records are updated regularly. HR leaders should also require periodic reviews of safety processes as well as safety audits.
“Having a mock OSHA inspection, in which an outside safety consultant comes in and reviews their operations, will ensure companies get an independent viewpoint on their safety processes,” he says.
Brightwell agrees that HR would be wise to prepare for stepped-up OSHA inspections.
In addition, HR should ensure that key employees understand the importance of updating required documentation and know who to call should an OSHA inspector have additional questions.
“Make sure your employees are prepared for when those compliance officers walk through the door,” she says. “Lots of employers don’t think about OSHA until they’re actually there.”