Managers, Not Bureaucracy, Can Increase Job Safety

Article excerpt

THE United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is one of the least popular regulatory programs of the federal government. Unions think the agency is doing too little to protect workers and is too soft on management. Business leaders, in turn, think OSHA has issued too many regulations and that its enforcement is too bureaucratic and onerous.

Both sets of critics are right. Most studies of OSHA conclude that it is doing too little to promote job safety and too much in terms of imposing costly burdens on employers. More important, OSHA relies too much on its power to set job safety and health standards and to fine employers when those standards are violated.

Why focus on OSHA? Because Congress has been holding hearings on the proposed Comprehensive Occupational Safety and Health Reform Act. The bill contains some useful changes, notably a new emphasis on safety training. Unfortunately, its main thrust continues the traditional emphasis on the command-and-control approach to regulation. The Reform Act would give each OSHA inspector unprecedented authority to shut down any activity that he or she personally considered to be dangerous. At present, inspectors must get court orders to take such action. Just consider that awesome power from the viewpoint of a small employer who lacks a professional safety department to deal with the man or woman from OSHA.

Given the congressional attention to changing the statute governing OSHA, this is the appropriate time to draw on the title of the pending legislation - to make a comprehensive review of job safety and health. Determination of the causes of on-the-job accidents is the logical place to start.

As serious research has demonstrated repeatedly, most on-the-job injuries do not involve violating OSHA standards. It is estimated that about 90 percent of accidents are the result of human error. Inexperienced workers tend to have high accident rates, as do employees who have been away from the job for some time. During rapid expansions in production, there is less time to train new workers and to maintain machinery. Conversely, at lower production rates, there is more time to teach workers about safe practices and to repair and maintain equipment. …