The New OSHA:
Getting a Grip on Workplace Injuries, Illnesses, and Deaths

GRIP Is Getting Results and Improving Performance

John Paulk, Safety Director for Horizon Steel Erectors Company, sometimes travels at company expense to tell the public how much his company appreciates the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Stranger than fiction, perhaps, but true—and not an isolated incident.

More and more, businessmen and women are saying they like OSHA—the new OSHA, whose modus operandi has changed from mainly enforcement to increased partnership with industry and labor. The new OSHA is a symbol of the fast-moving reinvention of the federal government’s regulatory system.

Calculating and Counting on Change

Despite a 57 percent drop in workplace fatalities since OSHA was created in 1970, the agency’s job of protecting the health and safety of American workers has been expanding at the same time its resources have been declining. “We simply can’t protect 92 million workers in more than six million workplaces” with 2,000 state and federal compliance officers, said Joe Dear, Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health.

So, Dear created a self-managed “Design Team” in 1994 composed of 17 OSHA employees—compliance officers, managers, union representatives, and support staff from all over the country. (The team later expanded to 27 employees.) Dear gave them a two-year mandate and a blank piece of paper. Their charge: design a new OSHA, drawing from best practices in government and the private sector. The effort is an NPR Reinvention Lab. Team leaders are Leo Carey, representing management, and Ken Maglicic, Vice President, National Council of Field Labor Locals, American Federation of Government Employees. Maglicic works as a compliance officer in the Columbus, Ohio, office.

“I’ve been on a lot of teams,” said team member David Katsock, compliance officer at the OSHA area office in Parsippany, NJ, “but all the others were management-directed.” Not this one, Katsock said. People worked on an equal footing. “Members left their titles at the door,” he said.

Going to the Experts

Team members started by visiting more than 100 front-line staff in area offices to get firsthand information and ideas. Sometimes people were skittish about talking. “When we asked them what worked best, they pulled out their rule books,” said Joel Sacks, staff with OSHA’s Office of Reinvention. “But we’d keep asking, even after hours, ‘What really works?’”

They discovered the agency was relying on one tool—inspections—to do the job, though research showed it would take 87 years for OSHA inspectors to visit every worksite in the country. They concluded that OSHA should add other tools to its reliance on enforcement penalties and citations. “We cannot be everywhere all the time,” said team member Robert Kulick, Area Director at Parsippany.

The Design Team came up with new tools, such as incentives and partnerships with employers, trade associations, unions and other governmental organizations. Partners would work together on the common goal of eliminating hazards to prevent injuries and illnesses. Traditional enforcement would focus on those who chose not to participate in the partnership efforts.

The new OSHA would judge its own performance by its impact on worker health and safety, not the number of inspections, citations, and penalties. Inspectors would stop working autonomously, rulebook in hand, in a reactive, piecemeal approach. Instead, area office staff would work in self-directed, multi-disciplinary teams, using problem-solving techniques and creative approaches to address hazardous working conditions. Two team models emerged. One—the response team—focuses on immediate complaints, referrals, outreach, and fatalities. The other—a strategic intervention team—works on longer-range prevention and partnership. The overall design is called Getting Results and Improving Performance (GRIP).

Making the Design Work

How do you implement such a grand design? The Design Team decided on a pilot test in a couple of offices. The Parsippany and Atlanta East offices would test and refine the concept. If it worked, they would expand it to all area offices.

All the research and evaluation paid off when GRIP was put into practice. “The two best parts of redesign...are employee participation and outcome measurement,” according to Howard Eberts, a union steward on the strategic intervention team in Columbus, Ohio. “By allowing field employees to actively participate in improving the way we do business, our employees have more ownership in our work and take more pride in making our office succeed,” Eberts said.

By the summer of 1996, 15 (of 67) area offices had implemented GRIP and the roll-out continues. OSHA workers have come up with some creative approaches for improving worker safety and health:

Sometimes GRIP teams simply apply common sense and quality management principles to reinvent a traditional approach. For example, OSHA gets lots of “informal” complaints—like phone calls from people who report a workplace hazard, but are unwilling to identify themselves. Before reinvention, OSHA staff wrote a letter to the employer. Meanwhile, the hazard remained, the complainant stewed, and other complaints stacked up—many up to 30 days. OSHA workers in Cleveland and Peoria substituted a quick phone call for the traditional letter to the company and then accepted a faxed response to verify that the employer had fixed the problem.

Cleveland, which receives the highest volume of complaints in the country, reduced the average time between the complaint and abatement from 39 workdays to nine; Peoria reduced its response time from 23 days to five. Backlogs are now rare. OSHA implemented the phone/fax complaint handling process nationwide.

Reinventing Headquarters

Headquarters staff are reinventing their regulations and internal processes as well. For example, OSHA is improving, updating, or eliminating confusing, inconsistent, and duplicative regulations. In partnership with industry and labor, OSHA is revising standards and rewriting them in plain English.

OSHA’s national office has also improved its service to the public. The agency gets about 12,000 requests a month for publications. In the past, mail orders were backlogged, phones went unanswered, and publications were often out of print. The publications staff got a GRIP, too. They cut the time for processing phone or mail orders from six weeks to less than one day and the backlog from 3,000 pieces to under 100.

Information technology also plays a big role in OHSA’s efforts to meet the public’s requests for help. OSHA’s popular Web site (see below) receives close to one million hits a month, mostly from industry. The agency produced a CD-ROM to deliver more information to clients in the swiftest way possible.

Helping Is the Goal

The new OSHA has moved beyond the old focus of punishing employers who fail to meet all its standards. “People will know that we are there to help, not to nail them,” said Design Team member Connie Behee from Boise, Idaho.

Vice President Gore recognized the changes as well when he presented OSHA’s Design Team with a Hammer Award on June 12, 1996. “There really is a new OSHA out there,” the Vice President said. “The fact that you’re doing it will be an inspiration to others.”

After the award presentation, Parsipanny’s Dave Katsock said, “I would do any project with this team. This team could find a way to get to Mars.”

For More Information

See OSHA’s Web site at or contact OSHA’s Office of Reinvention at (202) 693-1819 or e-mail Robert Pitulej at or Rich Tapio at

This article appeared in Reinvention Roundtable, Winter 1996-97, Vol 3, No. 2. For more information, contact Pat Wood, (202) 694-0063 or e-mail:
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