Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Safety in Transition

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Safety in Transition

Article excerpt

Occupational Hazards' Editorial Board takes a look at the issues that dominated 1995, and where the safety and health field is headed in 1996.

What issue dominated occupational safety and health in 1995? Ask members of Occupational Hazards' Editorial Board and they quickly point to Capitol Hill.

OSHA reform "overwhelmed everything else" this past year, said Dr. J. Donald Millar, an Atlanta-based occupational health consultant and former director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Millar took a dim view of House legislation (HR 1834) introduced by Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) to move OSHA toward a more consultative role. "The whole thrust of the Ballenger legislation is really to make absolutely sure that OSHA can't do its job," said Millar. He explained that the bill's proposal to eliminate NIOSH would cripple OSHA's ability to conduct risk assessment for new and existing standards, yet the bill sets up more stringent criteria for such scientific analysis. Rather than try to overtly destroy OSHA, said Millar, congressional critics were making NIOSH a "convenient scapegoat."

"It is not consistent with modern society to have no governmental involvement in safety and health," said Millar. "There are plenty of people who think like I do, that no government is a responsible government if it is not involved with its most valuable resource - its workers."

Passage of the Ballenger bill or similar legislation would create "havoc in the industry," warned Stewart Burkhammer, vice president and manager, safety and health for Bechtel Corp. "There is a real need for an enforcement arm in safety and health... The good employers are going to have effective safety and health programs because it is a good way of doing business, but there are some out there [whose attitude is] 'Kill a guy today, change their name tonight and reopen tomorrow.'"

Burkhammer said any problems with OSHA could be "fixed administratively without reopening the Act." He criticized small business attacks on the agency, complaining that their representatives largely failed to attend stakeholder meetings held by OSHA. Citing estimates that small businesses account for a "disproportionate number of accidents," he said these firms have to be "part of the discussions rather than just saying no" and must "understand that they have a problem and do something about that problem."

Mixed Emotions

Fred Toca, Ph.D., director of occupational health for Hoechst Celanese Corp., expressed "mixed emotions" about the Ballenger reform bill. He questioned the exemption of small employers with 50 or fewer employees from routine OSHA inspections, noting that they account for a large number of injuries and illnesses. He opposed denying employees the right to complain to OSHA without first contacting their employer. Toca also argued against elimination of penalties for general duty clause citations. He noted, for example, that the pharmaceutical industry routinely develops and uses exotic materials for which no standards exist. "You need to have something that lets you deal with the unknown situations because there are more of them than the known situations."

But Toca applauded the Ballenger bill for its attempts to focus standard-setting on the basis of risk and sound scientific data, rather than on political process. Now, using the most conservative risk models, Toca said, the process seems more one where a substance or problem is "guilty until proven innocent." He also supported the bill's provision to permit labor/management safety committees, which were called into question by the National Labor Relations Board.

Safety consultant and author Jeff Vincoli, president of J.W. Vincoli and Associates, said the talk about doing away with, or scaling back, OSHA and NIOSH "hurts the safety profession and hurts the American worker." He noted that almost every OSHA regulation is on the books because "somebody died or got hurt. …

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