OSHA's Forecast for 2007: OSHA No Longer Is Weathering Hurricanes, but 2007 Could Bring Stormy Challenges for the Safety and Health Agency-Such as Handling Oversight Hearings from a New Democratic Congress and Striking a Balance between Compliance Assistance, Enforcement and Standard-Setting Initiatives
Torres, Katherine, Occupational Hazards
If 2005 was a stormy year for OSHA--weathering hurricanes and criticism while operating without a permanent administrator--2006 was the calm that comes before the next storm.
After months of waiting for a permanent OSHA administrator to take the reins, the agency finally welcomed Edwin Foulke Jr., a seasoned labor attorney who already had substantial government experience heading the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) from 1990 to 1994.
Stakeholders claim that 2006 was a "transition year" for OSHA. As Foulke got acquainted with the agency's top issues as well as with its staff, the new OSHA administrator began to set the stage for his objectives for the agency in the next year and a half.
For 2007, most stakeholders say they don't anticipate big changes for OSHA. Claiming that the agency has been conducting itself in the same way ever since the Bush administration took office in 2000, labor advocates and safety professionals are biding their time until a new administration takes office in 2008. They say they are hopeful that oversight from a new Democratic Congress--the result of the Nov. 7, 2006, elections--will help OSHA shift its priorities.
Foulke explained to OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS in December that his list of priorities includes placing emphasis on compliance assistance, as he wants to see more U.S. employers become competitive in the global marketplace.
Many stakeholders aren't surprised that Foulke is taking this route. Frank White, senior vice president of ORC Worldwide, claims that the new OSHA administrator is continuing the priorities of his predecessor, John Henshaw, who also placed a great emphasis on compliance assistance.
"This administration, [and] in particular, Secretary [of Labor Elaine] Chao, emphasized that the need to work with and assist employers to a greater extent and that is what they chose to do," White says.
OSHA 'Irrelevant' to Worker Safety
Labor advocates such as Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), agree that the strong focus on compliance assistance has been on the agenda ever since the Bush administration has come on board. But Shufro claims such strategies have made the agency "become increasingly irrelevant to workers' everyday lives."
One area in which Shufro says he believes the agency has lost its focus is enforcement, which he says is due to lack of funding and staffing reductions. Although recent figures from OSHA indicate that the agency in FY 2005 conducted 38,714 inspections, a 7.6 percent increase from the previous year, Shufro claims it's not enough.
"OSHA could do a lot more, but a lot of that has to do with the agency not being given sufficient funding from the administration," he states.
Pointing to OSHA as an agency that has become "consultative" as opposed to one that caters to enforcement, Shufro claims that such strategies give employers more power, and not vice versa. He says he also would like the agency to promote programs that train workers about their rights and to know the hazards of their particular jobs. But he claims if employers aren't heavily reprimanded for negligence toward workplace safety, he doesn't see such changes happening.
"I would like to see employers who violate the law be given high criminal penalties," Shufro says. "Every time a worker gets killed or becomes hurt due to employer negligence, that should be treated as a crime."
Longtime OSHA critic Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO's safety and health director, says she is on the same wavelength as Shufro. "For the past couple of years, the agency has been passive and quiet," she says. "They [OSHA] focus too extensively on their voluntary partnership and alliances programs, but they have failed to take bold initiatives on safety and health."
In addition to enforcement, Seminario claims that the agency also has been lax with standard-setting initiatives--even those proposed standards that have been on the OSHA priority list for some time. …