Its Not Working

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / October 31, 2001

The methodology that is used in the United States to encourage compliance with the safety and health standards isn’t working.  That’s a polite way of saying that the strategy the Federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration, OSHA, uses to enforce the regulations is flawed.  The strategy is partially effective, but unfortunately that’s the problem; its only partially effective.  There is no doubt that slapping an employer with a $70,000 fine will get the employer’s attention but the employer is not the entire problem and therein lies the flaw.


In 1970 the United States Congress passed a law that has several requirements.  The first requirement specifies that all employers must provide all employees a work place that is free of hazards that will result in serious injury or death.  This is a reasonable request and one would think that after 30 years all employers would be complying with this portion of the law.  (Unfortunately, such is not the case and this alone is a very good reason for a strong enforcement strategy.)  The second requirement specifies that all employers must comply with the standards that were developed as a result of the law.  This is logical since it can be assumed that the standards have been developed not only to guide employers but also to ensure that workplaces are free of hazards that will result in serious injury or death.  Since it is reasonable to assume that the employer sets the rules for employees, it would follow that forcing the employer to comply with the standards would also result in the employee complying with the standards.


To facilitate an understanding of the rules, the OSHA standards require, and have required since 1971, that the employer is to provide training for all his/her employees.  More specifically, the scaffold standards require the employer to provide training for employees involved with scaffolding.  In other words, the employee is to know all about the OSHA scaffold standards.  Consequently, the enforcement strategy that OSHA uses punishes the employer for not providing a safe workplace, for not providing the employee with adequate safety training, and not complying with the standards.  Nothing is wrong with this strategy.  The failure of the strategy is that enforcement stops with the employer.  It is believed that the employer carries the big stick; non-compliance by the employee will result in adequate punishment for the employee so that violations do not reoccur.  Nice idea, but not effective enough.


OSHA has no apparent strategy for encouraging the employee to obey the law.  Theoretically the employer is providing the encouragement but I don’t see it.  Sure, most employers don’t want to hurt their employees.  If nothing else, injuries are costly; training by comparison is cheap.  But what about the employee who has had training but chooses to violate the standards?  Typically, that same employee will say that he/she “forgot” the training.  That means retraining, and sure enough, the scaffold standards require retraining for anybody who forgot the training.  But how often do we give the retraining?  OSHA says whenever you forget the training.  For most people, refresher courses every year or so seem to work.  But what if an employee received training in, say guardrails, on Monday, and this same employee is on a scaffold platform on Tuesday that is 20 feet high and it has no guardrails?  (For those of you who have not had training, the standards require guardrails at 10 feet.)  OSHA would say that the errant employee is in need of retraining.  Fair enough but suppose the employee received training on Monday morning and he was on the same scaffold on Monday afternoon.  Time for more retraining, it would appear.  But wait a minute; if this guy is so forgetful, he’ll always be in training!  There has to be a better way.


The better way is completing the enforcement strategy.  One of the little known aspects of the 1970 law is the requirement that all employees shall comply with the standards.  That’s right, if you’re an employee, you should know all the standards that apply to your work activity.  If OSHA enforced this part of the law, in addition to the employer requirements, I think we would see dramatic improvement in safety.    Now I’m not suggesting that we hit the non-compliant employee with a $70,000 fine although I’m sure that would get some attention.  How about a $50 fine or perhaps 10 percent of his/her weekly pay?  To justify this approach, it is important to realize that before the employee could get fined, the employer would have to prove that adequate training had been provided.  In other words, the employer is still part of the equation; both the employer and employee are responsible for safety on the job.  Imagine if you can!  The employer provides a safe place to work, and training, so the employee knows what has to be done to work safely.  The employee takes the training seriously and constantly complies with the standards.  Now there’s an enforcement policy that works.


Why doesn’t OSHA enforce all three aspects of the law; safe workplace; employer compliance with the standards; employee compliance with the standards?  I don’t know but I trust there are good reasons.  I just don’t know what they are.

Tags: employee compliance Employees employer compliance OSHA Standards & Regulations Resources safe workplace

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