Worker Safety

When workers contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they are usually worried about life and limb in the place where they go to make a living every day. The "old" OSHA would send off letters to the employers, some of whom didn't have a clue they had a problem. In the meantime, the worker waited up to a month for action. Not anymore. Now OSHA calls the employer -- usually within 24 hours -- and works out a plan to fix the hazard. The fax speeds documents back and forth. It's common now for hazards to be resolved in a week rather than a month.

Industry leaders like this "new" OSHA. The new OSHA emphasizes increased partnership with companies, and it's paying off. Joe Dear, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, set up a team of experts from OSHA's compliance officers, managers, union representatives, and support staff all over the country. He asked them to design a new way to protect American workers. This "design team" created an approach that puts more stock in results than in rulebooks, and they're using it in field offices nationwide. The new way includes not only rapid response to worker complaints but also partnership with companies to work on long-range prevention of health and safety hazards.

One partnership is with Horizon Steel Erectors Company. Horizon teamed up with OSHA's Atlanta office, Argonaut Insurance Company, and the Department of Defense. Horizon, building a Defense facility in Florida, said that each worker would use fall protection and that supervisors would enforce this commitment. In the first 90 days, Horizon had a 96-percent reduction in accident costs per work-hour from $4.26 to 18 cents. In six months, the total cost of workers compensation claims fell from more than $1 million to $13,200.

There's more. Horizon President Ken Sanders told OSHA that three lives were saved in three separate falls because the workers were wearing fall protection gear. Now Horizon Safety Director John Paulk travels at company expense to tell others about the new OSHA.

Even though we believe the partnership approach has a big payoff, we will never lose sight of the government's basic responsibilities and will never give up the ability to enforce the rules. In the Maine 200 program, OSHA told the 200 most hazardous companies in Maine that, if they would run good safety programs, traditional inspections would be a low priority. Worker safety soared, and OSHA is establishing similar programs nationwide. When one of the Maine 200 companies reneged on its commitment and subjected its employees to extremely unsafe and unsanitary conditions. OSHA stepped in quickly, cited them for dozens of violations, and fined the company $3.6 million.

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