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September 2014

From the Trenches

What Do the Election Results Mean for SH&E Pros?

By James R. Thornton

After months of costly campaigning, the American people reelected Barack Obama for a second term as 44th President of the U.S. He will work with a House of Representatives that held onto its Republican majority and a Senate with a slightly stronger Democratic majority.

President Obama must finish his first term with the threat of a fiscal cliff looming. With the national debt at an all-time high and climbing, the pressure will be intense in dealing with budget issues including taxes, healthcare costs and sequestration. How, or whether, Congress will be able to work with the Executive Office to make decisions that will benefit the country and its citizens remains in question.

Even assuming agreement on the fiscal cliff is reached with Congress before the end of the year, safety issues pale when compared to the more long-term economy and budget issues that face the federal government. Still, at some point, we expect the administration will turn its attention to the national safety agenda and priorities.

In the first Obama Administration, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis announced at Safety 2009, “There’s a new sheriff in town.” Under the leadership of David Michaels and Jordan Barab, OSHA initiated a vigorous standards-development effort, although OSHA was held back from completing those standards in the many months leading up to the election. In addition, the agency placed much greater emphasis on enforcement, the use of expanded administrative means that ensured higher penalties for violations and publicizing violators, and deemphasized voluntary programs such as VPP.

Although the number of inspections OSHA conducted remained generally flat, the number and amount of penalties increased dramatically. Although not considered business friendly, these actions stimulated and maintained employers’ attention to safety. Some would even argue that the administration’s approach punctuated the need for safety professionals and helped maintain ASSE membership, even during a declining economy. Still, contrary to Michaels’s support for risk-based approaches to occupational safety and health (written before coming to OSHA), the agency’s emphasis remained on development and enforcement of prescriptive regulations.
Although no assistant secretary has remained in the position following reelection of an incumbent president, it is likely that Michaels will remain as assistant secretary. If Solis and Michaels remain in their current positions, it is unlikely that OSHA’s philosophy or approach will change dramatically. Without the direct pressure of a reelection campaign looming over the administration, a rich environment exists for promulgating new standards. It is likely that an I2P2 standard will be promulgated, as this has been in the works for some time and appears to be a legacy maker for Assistant Secretary Michaels.

Several other standards, such as silica and combustible dust, have been drafted and are awaiting release, and others are in various stages of the promulgation process. In addition, there will likely be an environment of increased enforcement of existing standards and a continuation of the penalty multipliers through administrative actions that were initiated in the first administration. Voluntary programs such as VPP will likely continue to be deemphasized and OSHA staff will continue to migrate from cooperative programs in the regional offices and in Washington, DC.

For some, taking a negative view to another 4 years of the current OSHA is easy. Many employers achieve high levels of safety that surpass OSHA’s minimum prescriptive standards without being told how to do it by the agency. In addition, some employers encounter too-frequent OSHA inspections or nuisance penalties while many other safety-callous employers receive too few. We also get frustrated when our facilities are dinged for small infractions during compliance inspections, when more important risks and hazards are not even addressed.

Still, as your colleague who was asked to lead ASSE’s government affairs efforts to ensure that OSHA enhances safety while not making members’ work more difficult, I suggest that we also have a unique, historical chance as leaders of the SH&E profession to keep pressing for safety professionals to converse about how we actually achieve high levels of safety in the real world. For the first time, we are having meaningful discussions about moving OSHA away from a prescriptive to a risk-based approach and getting this nation off the decade-long plateau of work-related fatalities and injuries that each of us, regardless of political perspective, should be disappointed to have allowed to happen on our watch.

Whether the solution is through a truly risk-based I2P2 standard we can embrace, or application of dynamic approaches through cooperative programs that share best practices, or through application of risk-based approaches such as control banding, we have a responsibility to promote and pursue it. The sad fact is that injuries are occurring much too frequently and much too severely, and we must seek creative approaches to reverse these undesirable trends.

Although your expectations may have risen or fallen with this election, safety never goes out of style. Programs will likely remain about the same at OSHA over the next 4 years; however, this period represents a unique opportunity for our profession to advocate for innovative approaches to injury reduction with OSHA and the business community to ensure that workers return home safely to their families at the end of each workday. We have a responsibility and duty to do no less.

James R. Thornton, CSP, CIH, is chair of ASSE’s Government Affairs Committee and a professional member of the Greater Tidewater Chapter. He is director of environmental, health and safety for Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, in Newport News, VA.


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