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Can the US Stop the Worker-Safety Yo-Yo?

TUESDAY, AUGUST 8, 2017

By Michael Halliwell


“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” – Groucho Marx

I hate politics.

It’s unavoidable in so much of our modern lives, but its influence can be a source of so much frustration in so many aspects of our day-to-day living. As an outsider (I live in Canada) looking in at the U.S. politics, the federal government and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I can’t help but think that Groucho had it right. The most recent political changes in the U.S.—regulation changes as well as special interest groups—have brought the sheer insanity of the U.S. system into the spotlight once again.

The Yo-Yo Effect

Over the past six months, the Trump administration has frozen many of the new regulations that came about under the previous administration, pending review and/or repeal. PaintSquare Daily News has run numerous articles about industry groups and lobbyists campaigning or going to court to stop OSHA regulations from coming into effect, to delay them for further review or to get them tossed out completely.

White House
© iStock.com / zrfphoto

OSHA's direction seems to change every time there's a new occupant in the White House. Why are US employers and employees letting their lives and livelihoods be pawns in a political chess game?

The system itself is broken to the point where it takes decades to get new regulations through the process of bureaucracy and political maneuvering, but only days or weeks to stall or repeal the very same regulations. A simple internet search about work safety politics in the U.S. brings up about 1.2 billion hits (as compared to just 300 million in a similar search for the U.K., and 1.9 million for Canada).

Seeing just how political workplace safety in the U.S. has become, one can’t help but wonder: Should safety be the plaything of politics? Are the lives of U.S. workers really secondary to financial and political considerations? Why are U.S. employers and employees letting their lives and livelihoods be pawns in a political chess game?

The Stakes

Here are some simple numbers from the U.S. to put the importance of safety into perspective: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics from 2013 showed that 33,804 people died in motor vehicle accidents and 33,636 died due to firearms events—scary numbers with their own political contexts and battles. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO identified approximately 54,585 work-related deaths (on the job and occupational disease) the same year. That’s almost as many as both motor vehicle and firearms deaths combined!

Added to the political situation in government (partisan politics and campaign promises) are the special interest groups, occupational inertia (“But we’ve always done it this way!”) and unscrupulous employers for whom worker deaths, injuries and the occasional OSHA fine are just “a cost of doing business.” So what are the poor workers and honest, caring companies “on the ground” to do with the politics and “yo-yo” policies regarding safety? Personally, I think it is about time for a U.S. safety revolution.

The Canadian Way

In Canada, industry has made the move toward safety and has spearheaded the push for better standards than what the federal and provincial (equivalent to the U.S. federal and state) occupational health and safety bodies prescribe in their regulations. They are relying on science and statistics to give them a real view of what is safe. It’s not uncommon on Canadian heavy-industrial sites (big proponents of safe work and safe work cultures) for the company safety manuals and procedures to be far more stringent than the legislation (i.e., tie-offs at 6 feet rather than 10 feet). Safety pre-screening is becoming the norm—if you don’t have a good and defensible safety record with at least a certain minimum recognized safety standard, you don’t qualify to be on their site or even bid on their work.

Safety equipment
© iStock.com / TonyLomas

In Canada, industry has made the move toward safety and has spearheaded the push for better standards than what the federal and provincial occupational health and safety bodies prescribe in their regulations.

More and more employers are listening to their employees when there are complaints; they are investigating the causes and making changes or bringing in additional safety practices and equipment to deal with issues, rather than sweeping them aside. Companies are buying into safety, insisting on it and holding their employees accountable for it. Even some of the provincial laws have changed to both empower employees (like giving them the right and responsibility to refuse unsafe work) and punish them individually for their unsafe actions (individual worker fines, not just ones for the company, from worksite inspectors).

Sure, there are monetary costs to the additional and more comprehensive safety programs, but there are also paybacks in terms of reduced employee turnover, increased employee productivity, lost time injury and illness reductions, lower insurance premiums and tangible benefits in marketing (standing out as being able to do a job safely … not just being able to do the job).

As an owner, would you rather deal with the bad press associated with a workplace death or serious injury at your site (and the corresponding legal cases that could drag on for years and result in massive settlements), or would you prefer to invest a little up-front for a contractor with a real safety program and committed workers? Just like the “green” movement has pushed owners to invest in different building designs, construction products and LEED certifications, there is a growing movement here for safety to go beyond bare minimums and lip-service.

Changing the Approach

I don’t know if there is sufficient will in the U.S. to make an independent and effective OSHA or to get the politics, profiteering and special interest groups out of safety. I don’t know if owners, employers and employees are ready to shift from “barebones,” minimalist safety policies and accepting workplace disease, injury and fatalities as the norm to fully embracing and demanding safety on each and every job site. The quagmire of red tape and “yo-yo” policies that change with every administration and special interest group are not serving the workers across the U.S. and are costing lives on a daily basis.

I truly hope that a shift is coming because as an outsider looking in, the U.S. system is broken—a global joke, even—and the consequences are simply appalling.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Michael Halliwell

Michael Halliwell, M.Eng., CESA, EP, P.Eng., is an Associate and Environmental Engineer for Thurber Engineering Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. During his 17-plus years with the company, he has been involved with environmental site assessment, remediation, construction inspection and supervision, and project management. He also performs hazardous building material assessments for asbestos and lead paint.

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Tagged categories: Engineers; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection; Project Management; Thurber Engineering Ltd.; Department of Labor; Government; Health & Safety; Health and safety; North America; OSHA; Regulations

Comment from Lydia Frenzel, (8/10/2017, 1:34 AM)

I like this article.I have been on sites where the workers go around the safety policies; and where the companies advocate safety and everyone buys in to the culture. As a company and an individual- think ahead. Yes- my conversations in other developed countries do think that the US culture of safety is a joke. Not all of them, but certainly there is a disdain for our practices.


Comment from Tim Sampson, (8/14/2017, 8:51 AM)

Good article. It amazes me that in a country like the USA where people are complaining about "big government" interfering in every aspect of our lives, we still allow government to interfere in workplace safety, which as the author pointed out, is subject to the whims of whoever is in office. And why burden the President with things like this? I think a group of industry leaders would do a better job.


Comment from Paul Hayles, (10/18/2018, 9:13 AM)

I agree with getting the government out of safety, I work in the USA , in the offshore oil & gas their is a safety culture , Stop The Job as a sample all employee have a right to do this with no consequence, and all contractor got to have a high safety record are they don't get to bid. all Companies have 10 golden rules, if you break one of these safety rules, you don't get to work. you go home, you can not work with that company no more.


Comment from Michael Halliwell, (10/19/2018, 10:35 AM)

Thanks for the many wonderful responses. All I ask is that you don't get me wrong here: safety needs the government for uniform standards, regulations and enforcement...that's where the science gets developed and we get the "teeth" to deal with recalcitrant employers. It's the politics that needs to get out of safety. Politics is why it takes *decades* for new regs to become law in the US and why they can be gutted by the next person who gets into the Oval Office or the next party that takes the Senate or House. Considering the comedy of errors that some administrations are (in and of themselves), is it any wonder that their impacts on safety are enough to make you laugh (or cry)?


Comment from Kevin Nolet, (10/19/2018, 11:50 AM)

If industry could be trusted to set safe expectations then the governmental regulations would be unnecessary. but because the dollar drives the conversation, and the cost of an injury or life long illness cannot be budgeted for, there is no incentive to do so. Regulation, enforcement and standards are required to force employers to have a basic safety plan. Employees need to be penalized individually when they violate rules. Safety culture needs to be everyone's issue not just the employer, and not just the Safety Manager. Politics should be removed from safety so we can keep up with the rule changes but who should take over from the government? If industry is left to monitor themselves they will not provide the standards our workforce deserves. Its a little like the fox guarding the hen house


Comment from Michael Halliwell, (10/22/2018, 10:49 AM)

Kevin, I don't disagree. Industry can make wonderful examples and do fantastic things for safety....and it can also totally ignore it, relegating deaths and serious injuries to the "cost of doing business" bin. I'm not advocating for government to be out of the safety industry, and your individual/personal accountability idea is in use in some jurisdictions (where I live included). My main goal in writing this particular article was to try to spur the discussion about the political side: why it takes years to decades to update OSHA standards or bring new ones in, why the science can be thrown out at the whim of a new political master (be it in the Senate, House or White House) and why OSHA isn't independent of these forces (with a form or oversight, of course). We need the science and research on occupational disease, causes of workplace injury and prevention to be what drives change and regulation, with the teeth / clout to be able to address safety deficiencies and recalcitrant employers....not an organization that, as a result of being the target of frivolous change or unending bureaucracy, is only minimally effective at trying to improve worker safety.


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