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OSHA's Reporting Reduction

What effect will the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's recently announced reduction in the reporting of workplace fatalities have on safety efforts for employees?

Thursday, September 14, 2017
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Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration posted a revision on its website regarding the collection of data of work-related fatalities.

According to a statement published by the federal agency, "The new listings will provide information related to incidents in federal OSHA jurisdiction only. The new fatality listing is a more accurate reflection of work-related fatalities [and is] intended to provide useful information to help our stakeholders better understand how workers are fatally injured on the job so they can prevent further tragedies."

This revision reverses a practice observed during the Obama administration. Back then, OSHA listed fatalities at companies that were not at fault or even cited for a violation related to the incident, thereby inflating the number of workplace-related fatalities reported.

OSHA also reported fatalities prior to completing its investigation, says Henry Rightor Cobb, owner of PBM Training Services, a workplace safety, consulting and training firm in Baton Rouge, La., and a member of The Expert Institute, an expert witness service.

OSHA's intent, he says, was to make fatalities "personal" in hopes that employees would be more attentive to their health and safety workplace programs. Still, some felt this practice was unfair, he says, pointing to the National Chamber of Commerce.

"The chamber really pushed this," he says. "It felt it would put a blemish on employers prior to any citations being issued. Now the only fatalities OSHA will document on its website are the ones proven to be work-related where the employer was at fault for not having a certain procedure or program and has received a citation."

He says the former practice was hazardous for an employer's bottom line. As an example, consider petro-chemical refineries. Even if an employer is the lowest bidder on a contract, he says, it would not able to work with a company if its safety record didn't rise to an acceptable level. It could lose lucrative contracts, which would force employee layoffs.

Employers could feel even more pain. If the public perception of a workplace is unsafe, he says, HR could experience more difficulty attracting and retaining workers currently in demand like welders and pipefitters. Morale among existing employees could also drop.

"Even if you had a contract but exceeded a certain number of work-related incidents, the plant facility could cancel that contract and your employees are out of a job," Cobb says.

OSHA's revision, then, comes as good news for employers, experts say, who add that more changes may also be underway.

This past July, employers would have been required by OSHA to upload a record-keeping form known as 300a, says Jon Pina, a TEI member and consultant at his own firm, Evergreen Environmental, Health and Safety in Indiana, Pa. The form summarizes workplace-related recordables, which are fatalities or injuries or illnesses that require medical treatment, time off work, restricted work or job transfer.

OSHA planned on posting these forms on its public website. However, through executive action, President Trump has since placed that practice on hold, he says. The federal agency also wanted to update its standards involving acceptable exposure limits for carcinogens. "Now it looks like they're going to stay where they are," Pina says.

Likewise, during President George W. Bush's term, OSHA routinely conducted walkarounds at worksites with the employer and, if unionized, a union official. But the Obama administration changed the practice, enabling OSHA to include someone from organized labor during walkarounds even if the facility was non-union, says Jim Stanley, president of FDR Safety, a national safety and training consulting firm in Franklin, Tenn.

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"That will change if it hasn't already," he says. "Overall, the standards are the same. You never get out an [OSHA] rule within a short period of time. The rule-making you see spans both Democratic and Republican administrations."

But others believe OSHA's presence in the workplace is growing. Consider that OSHA is hiring more officers and developing new residential standards or rules for home builders, says Randy Mueller, TEI member and chief compliance officer at Sigma Marble & Granite in Dallas.

"The standards for fall protection for residential [jobs] were nonexistent," he says, adding that roofers were seldom tied off when working on the roofs of new houses. "Now OSHA has a task force that checks residential jobs for fall protection issues."

He believes OSHA will expand its footprint, especially in construction and general industry, the latter referring to workplaces like steel mills and chemical or power plants. As a result of OSHA's growth, he says, many employers will also create a new safety department run by safety professionals to handle changing OSHA standards.

"OSHA can and will visit one day," says Mueller, adding that companies need to be proactive. "An OSHA consultant once told me, ‘How many times does a rattlesnake have to bite you before you know snakes are real?' Be prepared for an OSHA visit, because you don't know when you're going to get bit."

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