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What’s the Problem with OSHA?

In many of my presentations at PDCs (Professional Development Conference) or other workplace safety conferences many times federal OSHA inspectors are in attendance. If I know they are present, I break out my bumper sticker that reads “I Love OSHA”. Of course this does usually get a chuckle when I bring an inspector to the front of the room and give him or her the sticker to put on their car. While they are standing beside me, I ask them to flash their badge, so everyone can see what one looks like. Seeing this badge on one of my clients’ worksites is a rarity if they are doing safety correctly. Yet I’ve talked with many organization leaders and safety professionals who fear and dread an OSHA inspection. This tells me they don’t “get safety.”

OSHA’s mandate is “to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.” ( Read that again. What is the purpose of your organization’s leaders and safety organization. It should be similar. The difference is that OSHA is charged with enforcement from a regulatory perspective. That’s part of their mandate. In my opinion the problem is not with OSHA; it is with the organization that doesn’t “get safety.”

If OSHA didn’t exist I would likely not be in the safety business. Many organizations are all about avoiding fines levied by state or federal inspectors but if that is their goal then they are missing the point. In fact the fines typically written on companies are low compared to the cost of implementing mitigation tactics that actually reduce the risk of injury. And the attitude of “take the fine” is just outright wrong.

Those organizations that “get safety” are avoided by the few OSHA inspectors that crisscross the nation. NBC News reported that the number of OSHA inspectors is down by over 40, leaving less than 1000 nationwide.1 The problem I see with OSHA is not in the agency or the number of inspectors or enforcement actions, but the mindset of many organizations across the country.

When I am advising an organization in their approach to workplace safety, many give me a weird look when I tell them that OSHA should be viewed as a part of the team. Sure there are inspectors that can be arrogant on a jobsite and swagger around like they own the place, but in my opinion and experience, that is rare. Most of the time the swagger is in the organization’s leadership who doesn’t “get safety.”

When an inspector shows up on your jobsite to walk-through or conduct a spot audit you might want to send someone to buy you a lottery ticket. Agents are few and far between and having one show up if you “get safety” is luck of the draw. If you handle the inspection correctly you will likely never see another inspector. Like everyone else, they all talk. If you are creating a safe workplace and treat the inspector as if they are part of the team you will likely not see another one. If you do have a follow-up they may bring a fellow inspector so they can brag on you. Remember that these inspectors got into the safety business to prevent injuries.

The wheels of government will grind on and republicans will lose to the democrats and vice versa and in the future the offices will change back to the other party. That is the nature of our form of government and is supposed to help make corrections so that along the way we don’t go too far to the left or right (my opinion; and no I don’t want to argue politics). If organizational leaders, workers, safety professionals, and OSHA inspectors are working together we should be focusing on creating a workplace where it is difficult to get hurt. With that focus of purpose we should stop seeing OSHA as a problem and instead invite them in to help us prevent every workplace injury.

Be Safe!

Carl Potter, CSP, CMC



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