Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Encouraging Words for Self-Audits

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Encouraging Words for Self-Audits

Article excerpt

After years of debate, OSHA backs off the routine use of company safety audits in compliance inspections.

I hold few cherished beliefs other than the Cleveland Indians will win the World Series this century and I will spend an entire morning hitting my tee shots onto the fairway. When it comes to occupational safety and health, I have one other steadfast view -- company programs based on commitment rather than compliance will always be better and last longer.

For that reason, I was happy to see that OSHA recently gave an incentive to employers who voluntarily take action to assess their safety and health programs through auditing.

For the past decade, OSHA has been under attack for using an employer's self-audit records as evidence in enforcement actions. In 1992, a subsidiary of International Paper Co. had fought OSHA's attempt to subpoena its internal audits on the grounds that OSHA had the right to receive only records required under the OSH Act. The company also complained that while OSHA on one hand was urging companies to conduct self-audits, its policy of using those documents in enforcement actions only served to discourage companies from adopting such practices.

While sympathizing with this view, the U.S. district court ruled in Secretary of Labor vs. Hammermill Paper Div. of International Paper that "the Act simply contains no provision exempting self audits or self-inspection reports from the Secretary's subpoena authority."

In August 1995, Frank White, vice president of Organization Resources Counselors and a former Labor Department attorney, complained that the department's policy "directly undercuts its efforts to encourage safety and health programs." In fact, he told the agency, "the department's position serves as a powerful disincentive for companies to conduct the kinds of thorough and candid self-appraisals that are the essence of effective auditing."

The Washington Legal Foundation followed up a few weeks later, telling OSHA that it should adopt a rule shielding most self-audits from disclosure and warning that "few employers will be so bold as to conduct a truly searching self-audit if the reward is potential civil and criminal sanctions."

Congressional Republicans soon took up the cause. In 1995, for example, Sens. Nancy Kassebaum and Judd Gregg introduced an OSHA reform bill that would have prohibited agency access to an employer's self-audit records unless a worker was killed or injured on the job. …

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