OSHA: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Rekus, John F., Occupational Hazards
A look at where the agency is serving American workers and where it needs to improve.
Yes, friends, like the Clint Eastwood movie, there are indeed three OSHAs. The good OSHA is the one that brings us wonderful things like the Web site. The bad OSHA is the one that enforces regulations that are 30 or more years out of date, and the ugly OSHA is the one whose behavior is, on occasion, reprehensible.
THE GOOD OSHA
OSHA certainly deserves recognition and praise for the good things it does, and it does many things very well. Without the threat posed by OSHA, some employers would do precious little to protect the lives of their workers. OSHA has also implemented dozens of innovative and helpful programs. While space does not permit me to elaborate on all of the good things the agency has accomplished, I'd like to point out four that I think are illustrative.
The Web Site
Anyone who's been to OSHA's Web site knows that, in the words of Virgil's Aeneas, "It is a sight wondrous to behold." The site is exceptionally easy to navigate and is a veritable gold mine of occupational safety and health information. Some of the site's attractive features:
* The most up-to-date edition of the regulations, including hundreds of letters of interpretation related to enforcement policy.
* The Field Inspection Reference Manual, which describes the agency's inspection procedures.
* The OSHA Technical Manual, which is a treasure trove of information on topics such as air sampling, noise monitoring, indoor air quality, laser safety and heat stress.
* Preambles to standards that provide an explanation and commentary on the regulatory requirements.
* A subject index covering topics that range from asbestos to zinc with thousands of links to other useful safety and health resources.
Whenever I hear people complain about the standards that OSHA has written, I challenge them to tell me exactly what it is about the standards they do not like. This is because, in my opinion, these standards are truly state-of-the-art. I have to qualify that, however. When I'm talking about the standards that OSHA has written, I do not mean the ones like machine guarding, fire protection, walking and working surfaces, and all the other standards that OSHA adapted from 1960s-vintage national consensus standards.
The standards I respect are those such as confined spaces, bloodborne pathogens, lockout/tagout or the revised respiratory protection, fall protection, trenching and scaffolding standards. These new or revised standards are flexible and performance-based rather than rigid and prescriptive. They provide employers with an infinite variety of compliance options that can be tailored to site-specific conditions.
I've read the preamble to almost every standard OSHA has issued over the last 20 years, and I never cease to be amazed at the thoughtfulness and well-reasoning of many of the standards' provisions. It also seems pretty clear that OSHA carefully weighs and considers the public comments it receives. Even the casual reader can see that, for the most part, the agency really tries to be evenhanded and fair-minded in its rulemaking process.
The new standards also precipitate change and force technology. In other words, they get people to do things that they probably would not do otherwise and create opportunities for manufacturers to develop solutions to safety problems that have been with us for eons.
Take a quick look at the ads in any of the major safety and health magazines and you will see a dazzling array of lockout/tagout hardware, full-body harnesses, movable anchor points, engineered horizontal lifeline systems, bloodborne pathogen spill cleanup kits, signs, posters, labels and placards that can be used to convey hazard information, instrumentation for real-time analysis of airborne chemicals, and a host of other products that most likely would not have been created if not for the promulgation of an OSHA regulation. …