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Safety, OSHA, and management's responsibility.

Safety, OSHA, and Management's Responsibility

"If only it weren't for the people always getting tangled up in the would be an engineer's paradise."

Job casualties, as a form of violence, are statistically at least three times more serious than street crime. It is estimated that one-fourth of the 21.3 million disabled people in the United States are disabled because of job-related injuries. Despite efforts to emphasize job safety on workplace machinery, environment, and protective systems, one employee in ten is killed or injured on the job each year. Approximately 400,000 workers contract an occupational disease each year, and deaths from these diseases average 100,000 annually. This means that there are about 5,090 accidental deaths at work each year (nearly 21 a day, or 3 people every work hour) and about 4.75 million reported accidents.

Although these figures are shocking, the number of safety and health problems in the workplace has nonetheless dropped considerably since 1970, the year in which Congress passed OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Act. During that year alone, an estimated 14,200 workers died, 2.2 million suffered disabilities, and another 500,000 suffered from occupation-induced illnesses.

The stated purpose of the act is "to assure so far as possible every working man or woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources." The prevailing feeling in Congress was that private organizations had not done enough to assure safe and healthy working conditions. It was also felt that the identification of work hazards was a job of such proportions that it could only be accomplished with the resources and authority of the federal government. But the single most important factor in the passage of OSHA was an increase in the reported injury rate in industry, an increase of nearly 20 percent in the previous decade.

OSHA has been controversial since its passage. When Ronald Reagan was a presidential candidate in 1980, he used the rules of OSHA to point out the excesses of government involvement in business. Employers, too, maintain that many of the safety standards are unreadable, trivial, too costly to implement, and often unworkable. Further, they observe that an important factor not covered in OSHA's approach is the worker's responsibility for his or her own health and safety, and there is evidence to support this. Some studies suggest that up to 88 percent of all industrial accidents are caused by unsafe acts or human factors.

Worker apathy and carelessness produce accidents, as does drug use. Yet random drug testing is constantly being challenged in the courts and in many instances an employee can be tested only after an accident has occurred.

Forcing employees to abide by OSHA's standards also causes problems for managers. A case in point was the refusal of some long-haired steel workers to either tuck their hair into their hardhats or to get haircuts. After being obliged to wear fire-resistant snoods, they filed a grievance against management for requiring them to pay for the snoods. This grievance, however, was denied by an arbitrator since the expense could be avoided by simply getting a haircut.

Clearly, to bring safety conditions into the workplace, employers and employees must work together. One of OSHA's major benefits is that it has gradually served to raise the consciousness of both management and labor. By and large, though, employers are responsible in tradition, law, and ethics for providing a safe workplace.

To believe that any employer would knowingly choose to provide dangerous working conditions, or would refuse to provide reasonable safeguards for employees, would be accepting the worst possible assumptions about human nature. But there is a lack of knowledge about the consequences of some dangerous working environments. Further, technology has a way of changing faster than occupational safety laws. Robots that have been installed in plants to perform dangerous operations are themselves at times a source of severe injuries and, in a few cases, the cause of deaths.

In evaluating the success of OSHA (which in any event is another government agency that management must deal with), many proponents point out that the act has had a positive effect on the health and safety of workers and maintain that critics ignore some basic facts - among them, that fatalities have decreased 10 percent during the program's history. This means that the lives of thousands of workers have been saved. Similarly, thousands of workers have been spared serious injury, with a 15 percent overall decline in total injuries during OSHA's lifetime. Moreover, OSHA has expanded its hazard communication to include all workers, not just those in the manufacturing sector. This expansion requires that all employees be given information on the hazardous chemicals to which they may be exposed.

During its formative years, OSHA was built upon somewhat trivial regulations, bureaucratic red tape, and an inexperienced staff. Mundane incompetence created situations where untrained inspectors enforced irrelevant standards which employers found unreasonable and the media held up to ridicule. (One of the standards that has often been held up to derision by OSHA critics is in a publication on ranch safety. It says, "Since dangerous gases come from manure pits, employees should be careful not to fall into manure pits." However, four Michigan dairy farm workers died recently from breathing methane gas as they were trying to rescue a fifth worker who had either fallen or had climbed into a manure pit. The medical examiner estimated that it took about 90 seconds for each of the five men to collapse and suffocate in the invisible cloud of gas.) However, in recent years those conditions have improved and Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole has given every indication that under her administration OSHA will be a high-profile agency. While she has not responded directly to criticisms of OSHA's performance during the Reagan administration, she has made it clear that she does not believe it has been doing enough. In her first six months in office OSHA has:

* Required seat belt use on the job.

* Proposed exposure limits for MDA, a chemical widely used in construction.

* Fined Lockheed Corporation $1.49 million for safety violations at a California plant where it makes the B-2 Stealth bomber.

* Fined a Ford subsidiary nearly $2 million for allegedly violating a previous agreement with OSHA.

* Recommended criminal charges against two companies blamed for a fatal explosion in a Milwaukee sewer tunnel.

* Ordered 631,000 factories to install locks and other protections to make sure that machines stay idle during repairs.

* Agreed with Sara Lee Corporation on a plan to protect 8,000 workers in 30 meat-processing plants from injuries blamed on repetitive motion.

* Fined a Maine paper mill $1.6 million for 531 alleged safety violations.

* Issued a proposed rule designed to protect 5.3 million health care and rescue workers from exposure to blood and other bodily fluids potentially infected with AIDS.

* Adopted new standards governing the use of trenches in construction.

* Asked Congress for $14.8 million for 179 more inspectors.

Furthermore, Secretary Dole's stated intention is getting the agency involved in preventive efforts. It would be logical to assume, therefore, that the best approach management can take to ensure safety is to work hand-in-hand with OSHA.

There are many tangible and intangible benefits in a well-managed safety and health program in an organization, but as with any program, the safety and health function must be managed effectively and efficiently. It is generally believed that one of the reasons many organizations have not been more successful in reducing injury and illness-producing incidents may be found in the lack of application of sound management principles and concepts to the safety and health function within a firm. This notion is supported by a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study of five industrial plants that had excellent safety records. Three specific factors were found that distinguish successful safety program practices.

* Managerial commitment to safety.

* Managerial efficiency with respect to safety.

* Education and training of all employees, not just those in high-risk jobs.

The results of the NIOSH study indicate that the identification, elimination, and control of safety risks are an essential part of the job of every manager - from first-line supervisors through upper management to the CEO. One of the recommendations made as a result of the study is that safety effectiveness become part of the criteria by which managerial competence is measured. It was also recommended that the focus of management be changed from looking at the effects of certain practices to their prevention.

The tangible benefits of a well-managed occupational safety and health program are obvious and are usually the focus of management efforts in almost any industry. But when one considers the intangible benefits - a better corporate image, increased attractiveness of the company to prospective employees, improved relations with governmental agencies, better worker morale, and reduced pain and suffering by employees and their families - it becomes evident that these nonquantifiable elements are the most important factors in any analysis of a safety and health program.

There appears to be a sincere commitment by the Department of Labor to improve both the dedication of OSHA leadership and the performance levels of the OSHA staff. There now needs to be an attendant commitment by management. While "getting tangled up in the machinery" is first and foremost a problem for employees, it is the behavior of managers that will ultimately determine whether or not a workplace is safe.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970
Author:Arnold, Gregory
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Previous Article:Warning: mismanagement of manufacturing may be fatal.
Next Article:From T.G. Rose to Robert Ludlum: conquering operational myths.

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