In December 1970 President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law and in so doing created OSHA, NIOSH, and OSHRC. In April of 1971 OSHA opened its doors and this month, therefore, celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Over the last 5 decades, it is undoubtedly the case that the efforts of OSHA, Employers, and Labor have collectively conspired to improve the health and safety of the workplace and that is, indeed, a cause for celebration. Non-fatal injuries in the workplace are estimated to have been cut by a factor of 4 in the intervening period. That equates to tens of thousands of workers, and their families, who have not had to deal with the trauma, pain, and loss of security that goes along with workplace injury. This is, most certainly, something for which we should all be immensely grateful.
It has been a collective effort, with stakeholders in government, unions, and industry working towards a common goal – that more people go home exactly as they came to work. Though a collective effort, it is fair to say it has not always been collaborative. The focus and orientation of the various stakeholders have not always been aligned. The view on how best to make progress, and who best to drive the agenda, has been a point of contention. Nonetheless, we have made progress and we now have a regulatory framework, reporting requirements, standards, and management systems that any employer must or should be using as part of running their business safely. In reality, however, progress has slowed. Recent administrations have struggled to drive the agenda, and the focus on rules and compliance has failed to sustain ongoing improvement.
Perhaps of greatest concern are two issues. First, that fatal incident rates have not improved in parallel with nonfatal. You can read more on this in our recent White Paper “Follow the Energy: One Factor Above All Defines Fatality and Serious Injury Causation – And Spots It in Advance.” Great progress was made in the first three decades of OSHA’s existence, with fatal incidents falling by over half despite significant growth in the total workforce. But over the last two decades, this fatal injury number has been remarkably stubborn and resistant to the rates of improvement we should all expect. Clearly, the collective stakeholders here are getting something wrong. Second, all the evidence suggests that occupational health in the US is a serious problem, lacking visibility, underreported, and with accountability and collective effort many decades behind our work in occupational safety. It is estimated 50,000 Americans lose their lives each year due to workplace exposures to harmful substances.
So, what for the future of OSHA?
There are those who may argue that more funding, more standards, more inspection, and more fines are a pathway to move forward. It is undoubtedly the case that some OSHA standards are ludicrously outdated, and the agency needs support in addressing those gaps. But, even a doubling of the inspection regime would mean most employers only getting a visit from OSHA once in the average American lifetime – hardly likely to move the bar. Penalizing those committing egregious acts, those responsible for the deliberate commission should be the stick used against the bad actors who willfully fail to take on board their responsibilities to their employees to keep them out of harm’s way. Most employers in this country would support that notion because most employers want the staff to be safe at work, and at home. Stronger fines and negative publicity can be powerful levers in getting bad employers to pay attention. However, for the majority of employers, a more collaborative and participative model is far more likely to gain traction. And that starts with OSHA being at the leading edge of thinking in workplace safety and health. The agency should be the go-to place for help, support, advice, and assistance. This requires a pivot from ‘policing’ to ‘partnering’. It requires that OSHA take the lead on the issues and challenges employers face, providing tools, insights, resources that enable. OSHA has the wherewithal, as a short visit to the OSHA website illustrates. Multiple tools and assessments, guidance, and best practices. Indeed, even the offer of free onsite consultation. Directionally OSHA started moving toward this more collaborative approach 6-7 years ago and further investment in these resources is far more likely to bear fruit.
In the same vein, all stakeholders should be undertaking a concerted effort to collaborate and drive the agenda. All too often we see competition not collaboration – between industry bodies, workers representatives, industry leaders, consultants, and service providers. We would all do well to remind ourselves that safety is not proprietary – it’s a collective moral obligation to share what we know that can save lives and prevent injuries. And at the forefront of this collective effort should be OSHA (and NIOSH) driving new thinking, new approaches, new science, and understanding, leveraging new technology – all in pursuit of doing, even more, to make work safer still in the next 50 years.