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Steven F. Witt became Director of the Directorate of Construction for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on October 26, 2006.

In this interview, Witt explains the Directorate’s plans for improving safety in construction this year, and he provides insight on key industry issues such as multi-employer worksites, multi-language workplaces and trenching and excavation.

Please provide a brief description of your role and responsibilities as OSHA’s Director of the Directorate of Construction.

I am responsible for overseeing the Directorate of Construction’s programs and staff. The Directorate consists of three offices: the Office of Construction Services, which works with outreach initiatives, voluntary programs and is our principle liaison with the construction industry; the Office of Construction Standards and Guidance, which promulgates construction safety standards, issues interpretive materials and assists OSHA field staff in enforcement cases; and the Office of Engineering Services, which conducts engineering analyses in construction accident investigations and provides engineering support to our other offices and field staff.

What are the Directorate of Construction’s goals for 2007?

The Agency’s Strategic Plan and Operating Plan, which is approved by the Assistant Secretary, define our goals. For 2007, we have three main goals—issue a proposed standard for cranes and derricks, issue a proposed standard on confined spaces in construction and assist our construction stakeholders in the development and implementation of cooperative programs (Challenge and VPP-C).

What new challenges does the Directorate of Construction expect to face this year?

The challenges that we face this year are not really new, as the leading causes of construction fatalities and injuries have been fairly constant. We must continue to find innovative ways to help the industry get those numbers down.

What issues in the construction industry today do you believe require the most urgent attention? How will the Directorate of Construction address these issues?

Fall fatalities continue to represent the greatest number of fatalities in the construction industry. The Directorate of Construction is working with the University of Tennessee to develop a Residential Fall Protection Study that will help identify specific hazard areas, which we will use to tailor new, outreach strategies. The Fall Protection Study should be completed by the end of this year. We are also moving forward with a proposed standard for cranes and derricks to address the significant number of fatalities associated with that equipment.

How does the Directorate of Construction ensure that its provisions and procedures are implemented in construction field operations?

To promote consistency, all questions about how construction safety standards are to be interpreted are required to be sent to the Directorate unless we have previously issued applicable guidance. Most of our resources are devoted to addressing those kinds of questions. We post those materials on the Internet so that they are available to our compliance staff as well as to the public. In addition, we provide support to OSHA field staff to help them with interpretive questions that can arise in enforcement cases. Also, this year we will work with the OSHA Training Institute to assist them in some of their training programs for compliance officers.

How will the Directorate of Construction advance construction safety and health training and education for the construction industry?

The Directorate of Construction and the OSHA Training Institute are working together to revise and update several construction training courses, including the OSHA 500 course. The Directorate also participates in other training activities as instructors and course reviewers.

ASSE members who work in the construction and demolition industry consider multi-language workplaces a key issue, one that expands beyond just English versus Spanish. How will OSHA and the Directorate of Construction work together to address multi-language workplaces this year?

The Directorate of Construction is working to coordinate OSHA’s multi-pronged approach to improving safety and health for and providing outreach and assistance to the Hispanic and other communities for which English is a second language. The Agency established a Hispanic Workers Task Force in August 2001 dedicated to pursuing creative solutions to improve the agency’s outreach and to prevent fatalities among Hispanic workers. That initiative was renamed The Diversity Workforce Issue Group because its efforts go beyond addressing Hispanic community issues. It is assisting the agency in seeking new, creative ways to provide the Hispanic and other communities with safety and health information and informational materials in a language they understand. Additionally, this group works to provide access to education and training programs and compliance assistance through its various cooperative programs. The Directorate of Construction, as a member of this group, has assisted in the following areas: 

  • Production of the Office of Communication’s English- and Spanish-language public service announcements (PSAs).
  • Development of the Embassy falls guide and the English and Spanish Construction Handbook.
  • Updating the Spanish-language translation of OSHA’s Construction eTool, which is available on the Agency’s website. The eTool is also linked from OSHA’s Compliance Assistance: Hispanic Employers webpage.
  • The English-Spanish/Spanish-English Construction dictionaries.

Do you believe OSHA’s policy on multi-employer worksites is adequate, or do you see a need for additional policymaking?

Much of the controversy about this issue resulted from an erroneous belief that the Agency’s policy in this regard was one of strict liability. In 1999, OSHA issued a Directive that I believe has done much to clarify that the policy is not one of strict liability. At present, I do not foresee a need to make any further changes to the policy. Of course, certain aspects of the policy are currently in litigation, so we are closely monitoring those cases. 
  
ASSE members have commented that current OSHA standards, regulations and guidance for fall arrest and confined spaces at construction sites is either inadequate or outdated. Our data also indicates that more members are using the A10 Construction and Demolition Standards. How does OSHA and the Directorate of Construction feel about using more voluntary national consensus standards to further confined space and fall arrest protection?

This spring, we plan to issue a new proposed standard for confined spaces in construction. We recognize that OSHA’s demolition standard, like our cranes and derricks standard, was promulgated a long time ago. We are moving to update our construction safety standards based on where there is potential to reduce large numbers of fatalities. For example, the Agency estimates that approximately 80 fatalities per year are associated with cranes and derricks. Updating that standard is the Directorate’s top rulemaking priority. With regard to the use of industry consensus standards, remember that to update OSHA standards, we must use the rulemaking process even when we adopt industry consensus standards. We always look closely at consensus standards when we go through the rulemaking process.

Trenching has received some press during the last few years, and several states, such as Florida, had significant initiatives to address excavation and trenching. Do you believe that more will take place with respect to excavation and trenching in 2007?

The Agency has been conducting a trenching initiative for the past four years. A trench initiative team was put into place in early 2003 to assist the agency in addressing this issue. AGC, ABC, NUCA, LIUNA, IUOE and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) worked together with the Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) to identify issues and to develop outreach information to assist stakeholders in the reduction of trench-related fatalities. Our four-year study indicates that trench-related fatalities have declined from 58 in 2003 to 49 in 2005. We need to keep up with our outreach efforts in this area to remind employers that trenching is dangerous and needs continual attention to prevent cave-in fatalities. Currently, we have distributed trench initiative kits to over 2,000 contractors, safety personnel and associations, and we have distributed 400,000 bilingual quick cards, 40,000 bilingual posters and 2,500 NIOSH CD-ROMs.

Biography

Steven F. Witt became Director of OSHA’s Directorate of Construction on October 26, 2006.

Witt joined the Office of the Solicitor, Department of Labor, in October 1972. He was an attorney in the Office the Solicitor, Occupational Safety and Health Division, from October 1972 until January 1983.

 In 1983, he joined OSHA where he served as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. In 1990, he was appointed Executive Assistant to the Assistant Secretary and held this position until 1993.

Witt became the Director of the Directorate of Technical Support (DTS) in 1996. As Director, he managed the Directorate with the most diverse responsibilities in OSHA. To ensure that OSHA maintained its capabilities, DTS developed special expertise in such areas as industrial hygiene, occupational medicine, occupational health nursing and safety engineering.

In November 2001, Witt became the Director of the Directorate of Health Standards Programs and Acting Director of the Directorate of Safety Standards Programs. The Directorates of Health and Safety Standards were charged with developing workplace standards, regulations and guidance, which address significant workplace risks.

An OSHA reorganization in August 2002 combined the Directorates of Health Standards Programs and Safety Standards Programs. Witt became the Director of the new organization, the Directorate of Standards and Guidance.

From January 2005 until his current assignment, he served as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA.

Witt holds a bachelor of arts degree in biology and chemistry from Hofstra University and a law degree from Boston University School of Law.