THE United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is one of the least popular regulatory programs of the federal government. Unions think the agency is doing too little to protect workers and is too soft on management. Business leaders, in turn, think OSHA has issued too many regulations and that its enforcement is too bureaucratic and onerous.
Both sets of critics are right. Most studies of OSHA conclude that it is doing too little to promote job safety and too much in terms of imposing costly burdens on employers. More important, OSHA relies too much on its power to set job safety and health standards and to fine employers when those standards are violated.
Why focus on OSHA? Because Congress has been holding hearings on the proposed Comprehensive Occupational Safety and Health Reform Act. The bill contains some useful changes, notably a new emphasis on safety training. Unfortunately, its main thrust continues the traditional emphasis on the command-and-control approach to regulation. The Reform Act would give each OSHA inspector unprecedented authority to shut down any activity that he or she personally considered to be dangerous. At present, inspectors must get court orders to take such action. Just consider that awesome power from the viewpoint of a small employer who lacks a professional safety department to deal with the man or woman from OSHA.
Given the congressional attention to changing the statute governing OSHA, this is the appropriate time to draw on the title of the pending legislation - to make a comprehensive review of job safety and health. Determination of the causes of on-the-job accidents is the logical place to start.
As serious research has demonstrated repeatedly, most on-the-job injuries do not involve violating OSHA standards. It is estimated that about 90 percent of accidents are the result of human error. Inexperienced workers tend to have high accident rates, as do employees who have been away from the job for some time. During rapid expansions in production, there is less time to train new workers and to maintain machinery. Conversely, at lower production rates, there is more time to teach workers about safe practices and to repair and maintain equipment.
Statistically, the turnover rate among workers is the most important single factor in determining injury rates. Scientific studies also show that people are most likely to make mistakes on the job between midnight and 6 a.m. Many major industrial accidents - such as at Three Mile Island - occurred late at night when workers who monitor the equipment were probably not very alert.
According to a study reported in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, exposures to lead of employees working at almost identical jobs differed by ratios of up to 4 to 1. This substantial range of variation was attributed totally to differences in personal working habits. Fining management as a way of getting workers to be more safety-conscious is too indirect to be very effective. Rather than relying mainly on fining those who depart from bureaucratic procedures, the emphasis should be on the creation of a safer workplace. The specific ways by which a safe and healthful work environment is achieved are a managerial responsibility.
Some companies reduce job hazards by buying new equipment. Others initiate new work procedures. Still others provide financial incentives to their employees - for example, paying them to wear earmuffs instead of spending much larger sums on so-called engineering noise containment. In revising the OSHA statute, Congress should abandon its preoccupation with the bureaucratic approach to job safety. Fining employers for violating federal standards may get a headline, but it diverts attention from the basic concern to develop safer work procedures and healthier operating environments.
The optimum mix of safety methods surely varies. Successful safety programs have four key components: they get top management to recognize safety as an important business concern; they involve workers as well as management; they find out more about the causes of on-the-job injuries and health hazards; and they devote most of their effort to dealing with truly serious safety problems.