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OSHA'S Interactive Expert Advisors Program
Points to the Future of Customer Service

by Ed Stern

In an astonishingly short time, easy access to vast amounts of information have been placed at our finger tips. Now, you can find almost everything you want by looking for it on the World Wide Web. Everything, that is, except for answers to difficult questions. For many topics, especially federal regulations, getting information is only the first step. Then you have to figure out what to do. The Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration (OSHA) has come up with an award-winning answer for businesses and workers.

The National Federation of Independent Business and the National Restaurant Association have told their members to use these Expert Advisor tools to help create safe workplaces and to avoid injuries, illnesses, and OSHA fines.

OSHA has produced a suite of interactive expert software programs that interpret and apply complex safety and health regulations to specific situations.

Expert Advisors enable businesses and others to answer a few simple questions and receive reliable answers on how OSHA regulations apply to their unique work sites. Topics include Asbestos, Confined Spaces, Hazard Awareness, and several others. Expert Advisors are provided free and can be downloaded and run on local personal computers.

Expert Advisors Program Is a Finalist in Innovations in American Government

OSHA's creative compliance tool for businesses and workers is a finalist in the prestigious Ford Foundation "Innovations in American Government" competition, and won OSHA a $20,000 grant to promote the concept. It's now in the running for the top ten winners to be announced in October. Each will receive an award of $100,000 to help replicate their programs.

OSHA's "Interactive Expert Advisors" program is novel in its synthesis of the following technologies and strategies:

  • It uses artificial intelligence software to provide expert problem-identifying and problem-solving help for industry, labor, and the general public to assist them in determining whether and how OSHA regulations apply to their situations.
  • It combines the expertise of OSHA's safety and health professionals, compliance officers, and attorneys into a single source of information.
  • It incorporates the valuable practical experience of the regulated community by OSHA's partnering with representatives of business, labor, and the U.S. military in developing the Expert Advisors.
  • It provides this guidance free, 24 hours a day over the World Wide Web, and it encourages redistribution by business, labor, and professional groups.
  • It delivers consistent, reliable answers to every inquiry.
  • It provides full confidentiality to the user.

The program goes far beyond information sharing. The Expert Advisors "understand" the situations of the individuals using these tools, and provide guidance tailored for their needs. The Advisors also enable OSHA to assist thousands of businesses without significantly increasing the number of agency staff or significantly increasing its budget.

The Impacts

These tools help businesses reduce the time-consuming and costly tasks of learning how major safety and health regulations apply to their situations. This has been a great source of concern to small business. Often, small businesses did not know which OSHA regulations affected their workplaces. To hire a private consultant to identify regulated hazards could cost them thousands of dollars. As a result, small businesses often failed to identify problems and therefore did not correct them. The use of these tools is changing business practice. The National Federation of Independent Business and the National Restaurant Association have told their members to use these tools to help create safe workplaces and to avoid injuries, illnesses, and OSHA fines.

The single most important achievement of the Expert Advisors program is providing reliable, multi-disciplinary, expert help on highly complex topics to tens of thousands of typical, business people and workers with a minimal increase in agency resources. Specifically, the program delivers to the regulated industry at no charge the diagnostic and problem-solving expertise of industrial hygienists, safety engineers, occupational physicians, nurses, epidemiologists, risk assessors, attorneys, and compliance officers from the Department of Labor and its partners.

Before development of the Advisors, if someone wanted specific occupational safety and health information, they had to pick up the phone and find the correct individual within OSHA, send a letter and wait for a reply, use a federally funded state consultation program, or hire a costly consultant. Now, OSHA's Advisor program delivers decision-making expertise from the most knowledgeable people in the agency to those who need the knowledge the most urgently. The expertise is provided for free, and OSHA is able to help thousands of businesses to come into compliance with OSHA standards at a small fraction of the cost of traditional methods.

You Can Do It Too

The program demonstrates that it is possible to transfer the complex decision-making and problem-identifying capabilities of diverse experts to people who lack and need that expertise, and to do so in an easy-to-use interactive tool.

The program demonstrates that a very diverse audience of small business owners and managers, corporate professionals, and military personnel can use problem-solving, diagnostic software tools from the government. And it demonstrates that this audience can use expert system software to help them comply with regulations on technical topics. The public's response demonstrates that they understand it, can use it, and want it. The following comment shows business interest. It is one of many.

"Moreover, the creation of a compliance guide such as the Asbestos Advisor requires a synergistic effort from all agency personnel who provide input into its development. For the Advisor to be able to be created, members of agency departments that work in policy, compliance, and enforcement must uniformly agree on the requirements and objectives of the applicable regulations.... The net effect is a law with requirements understood by both the agency and the regulated community. NMHC/NAA strongly urge that more agencies engage in this type of effort and create more ĆAdvisor-type' compliance materials. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and Environmental Protection Agency would greatly benefit from such efforts and the apartment industry would greatly benefit from the clearer guidance."

-- Clarine Nardi Riddle, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs, National Multi Housing Council/National Apartment Association (NMHC/NAA) in testimony before the Small Business Administration.

Making the Complex Easy Is Not Easy to Do

OSHA encountered various obstacles in creating the Expert Advisors. The creation of expert systems is complex. Developers must analyze regulations to decipher their underlying logic in order to prepare the hundreds of decision rules needed to diagnose how a regulation applies to specific sets of facts. Diverse experts, such as engineers, health scientists, risk assessors, lawyers, economists, and compliance officers, who speak diverse languages, must have their expertise woven into a single, easy-to-understand voice. It is a difficult task and a bit intimidating at first.

Some subject matter (domain) experts have doubted that it could be done at all, and some have been anxious about trying. Some have been anxious or suspicious about new technology. Other domain experts are reluctant to share their expertise. Some fear that their roles would be diminished after sharing their expertise.

This anxiety is not warranted. Domain experts know vastly more than can be put into expert systems. The systems are difficult but very interesting, even fun, to build. The systems will save experts from having to answer common problems and give them time to work on new problems.

Each Expert Advisor still presents new challenges. New combinations of technical, legal, and compliance information must be seamlessly assembled, so that the finished Advisor provides answers businesses can count on to be in compliance with the law, and OSHA can count on to produce safe and healthful working conditions.

Others Can Do This

The best proof that it can be done are the excellent interactive expert Advisors created by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Policy of the Department of Labor on a variety of Labor laws. That Office is leading other parts of the Department to create similar Advisors. You will be seeing similar tools from other agencies. The National Partnership for Reinventing Government has been encouraging and supporting their investigation of this strategy. Now, so are the Ford Foundation and the Council for Excellence in Government.

Do It With Partnership

We believe that the audience that needs the help can help an agency help them. They know what is confusing to them. They know where they need help. So, we listen and get good advice. We listen mostly to representatives of trade associations and labor organizations, but also to safety professionals in business and others. They helped us focus on their problems and they helped us get the word out to the affected community. We would not have a winning strategy without them.

If you are in the government, think about how this strategy could help your customers. If you are a member of the public, think about the problem-solving help you would like from a government agency and let them know.

About the Author

Edward Stern is OSHA's facilitator and in house expert on Expert Advisor software. He also works with the National Partnership for Reinventing Government to help other agencies apply this practical technology. You may reach him at (202) 693-1873, fax (202) 693-1644, or Edward.Stern@osha-no.osha.gov

Press Contact

Frank Meilinger
(202) 693-1999

Related Resources

OSHA Trade News Release
OSHA Unveils Hazard Awareness Advisor
Innovations in American Government Award
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