Will OSHA’s Newest Inspection Strategies Back-fire?

Big Emphasis on Employee Complaints, Reporting Hospitalizations, and Other Reactive Tactics

April 1, 2015 – As is the case with most other government agencies, people like to complain about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Employers grumble about new or revised OSHA standards that are not clear and concise, “sneaky” inspectors, and undeserved citations. Workers sometimes gripe about having to follow strict safety procedures required by OSHA that they feel slows them down or makes their jobs more difficult. And safety professionals often protest when OSHA “changes the rules” by issuing a directive or letter of interpretation that seems to change (or greatly expand) their previous position on a topic.

But lately what I hear complaints about most often are OSHA’s efforts to implement new and unconventional approaches to getting into the door of businesses and organizations to inspect. And it is no surprise that people feel this way. You may already be aware that OSHA totally revamped their website recently (judging by how well it functions – or doesn’t function – most of the time, it seems the programming was performed by an eighth-grader). Now the primary banner located at the top center of their homepage is dedicated to telling a worker how to file a complaint against his or her employer – IN BIG BOLD LETTERS.  And that same message also appears on many other pages throughout the OSHA website, to the point that it distracts from the information that the pages are supposed to be conveying.

And then to put the cherry on top of the cake, OSHA recently changed up the content of OSHA 10-and 30-hour courses. They now require Outreach trainers to spend considerable time providing explicit instructions to students about how to file a complaint against their employer; the same employers who paid to send them to the class! The new curriculum includes having the trainees reviewing a case study and fill out an actual complaint form, followed by taking an exam to make sure they understand the process to file a complaint about conditions in their workplace.

And now, I believe OSHA might have crossed the line. Did you know that earlier today they implemented a new standardized message that callers hear when phoning any one of their offices. Here is what I heard when I called one of OSHA’s Area Offices earlier today:

[phone ringing] –

[answering machine] – Thank you for calling the United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This is the Anytown Area Office. Please listen to our menu, as items have recently changed.

 Press 1 to file a complaint against your employer;

 Press 2 if you are an employer needing to report the hospitalization or amputation of a body part or loss of an eye by an employee at your company so we can “engage your company in a discussion”. However, do not select this option if the body part amputated was one or more of the employee’s ears, as we do not currently regulate the amputation of ears;

 Press 3 if you are an employer wanting to request a conference with the Area Director so you may beg for a reduction in the penalty you received because we “engaged your company in a conversation”;

 Press 4 to complain about our broken website; or,

 Press 5 to get more information about registering for Obamacare.

If one of these items does not meet your needs, then Press 1 and file a complaint against your employer.

While I am obviously joking about this phone message (it IS April Fool’s Day), the point is that OSHA has put a lot of energy into re-prioritizing their resources so they can use employee complaints and reports of injuries and illnesses to get into the door to inspect a business or organization. While that is certainly their prerogative, one has to wonder if tilting the balance away from proactive actions and instead focusing more on reactive efforts like soliciting employee complaints and requiring employers to report more incidents might backfire. I have seen first-hand some employers who now refuse to sponsor an OSHA 10 & 30-hour class for their workers. And I have already heard discussions about some very interesting “counter strategies” that employers could use that would prevent them from having to call OSHA when one of their workers is admitted into the hospital (I won’t share specifics here, but there are apparently several interesting technicalities in the OSHA rules that could be exploited).

Many people are understandably put out with OSHA and their recent changes. But please don’t think that I am totally unhappy with them. I mean, I do make my living by helping employers cope with OSHA’s ever-changing rules and regulations, so the more convoluted the rules, the better for me! But I do fear that the net result of all their recent efforts will be a decrease in the numbers of reported worker injuries and illnesses (or conversely, an increase in unreported incidents), and that could ultimately result in the actual injury and illness rates going higher! And with both OSHA and employers pouring more and more energy into these, and other, reactive actions and counter-actions, there might not be enough time left to devote to the continued development, implementation, and management of effective health and safety programs.

Who can I call to complain about that?


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Curtis Chambers is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and holds a Master of Science degree in Occupational Safety and Health. He has held numerous leadership positions managing and evaluating health and safety programs and providing training on workplace safety and health topics at various public organizations and private corporations. Mr. Chambers is currently the President of OSHA Training Services Inc. Visit their website at www.oshatraining.com.  
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