Posted by: bkivey | 17 November 2010

OSHA, Oh Dear

OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is a federal agency created in 1971 to implement and enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Initially funded with a budget of $36.5 million ($191 million in 2009 dollars) and 750 employees, today the agency enjoys a budget of $573 million ($109 million in 1971 dollars) and employs about 2,400 people. In addition to the federal organization, 45 states operate their own version of agency.

OSHA is unloved by business, not least because in its early years regulations were seemingly arbitrarily enacted and unevenly enforced. The agency’s own official history calls it an ‘agency in crisis’ a mere two years after it’s formation and a bare four years after inception the word ‘reform’ is used to describe the actions needed to get the institution on track. In contrast to many government agencies OSHA does spend the majority of its funding on its mission of ensuring work place safety, but the economy is large and the human resources at its disposal are small, so there is still room for improvement. I had occasion to see just how dysfunctional the investigative and enforcement functions can be.

At one time I worked as the Chief of Maintenance for a mid-size lodging property and one day the general manager told me that an OSHA inspector had arrived on-site. He seemed rather anxious, and I wondered why. To my knowledge there hadn’t been any accidents or reported violations, and my experience with OSHA inspectors on construction sites had been generally unremarkable. My boss was insistent that we ‘straighten up’ the shop area and environs, so we did, but I wasn’t too worried. I’m a big fan of workplace safety, and I’ve been through several OSHA certification classes, so I was reasonably sure we wouldn’t have a problem.

I met the inspector and was surprised that he didn’t want to see the mechanical room, as that’s where most of the stuff that can hurt you was located, but he did look at the shop. He asked a few questions, and left to write his report. Later on my boss called me into his office and seemed relieved that we had only gotten one violation with a fine of a few hundred dollars. When I asked what the violation was, I was told that the guard on the shop bench grinder was fractions of an inch out of spec. I was dumbfounded, because the guards were in place and functional. It turns out that there are regulations specifying the permissible distance between the grinder wheel and the guard and ours was some fractional amount out of compliance.

Now I was getting angry, because this seemed like the sort of the thing where the inspector could have just asked us to adjust the guard, and then watched us do it. I’d done similar things for other government inspections and never had a problem. Instead we were getting hit with a citation and a fine. My boss didn’t seem worried about this at all, if anything, he seemed relieved (the fine was later substantially reduced on appeal). I asked him why we were inspected in the first place, and that’s when I got the full story.

Three years prior, before either I or my boss were at the property, a housekeeper had gotten her finger smashed when she was holding onto a door frame while talking to someone and a gust of wind through an open window had closed the door. By accounts her finger hadn’t been broken nor even the skin cut, but I’m sure it hurt like hell. She went to the emergency room and then home for the rest of the day, so the incident qualified as a reportable lost-time accident. The housekeeping manager filled out the paperwork and sent it in. This was the incident that triggered the OSHA investigation.

So , to recap:

  • An employee is injured on the job, not from any systemic workplace malfeasance, but, depending on one’s charity, from a freak accident or her own inattention.
  • While painful, the injury was minor and didn’t actually require medical attention.
  • Three years after the incident an OSHA inspector showed up to inspect the workplace for safety violations.
  • The only citation issued was on a piece of equipment unrelated in any way to the initiating incident, and further:
  • The offending grinder had all safety guards in place and functional, and
  • It was located in a locked room to which only the maintenance staff had access, and
  • The only operators of the equipment were the maintenance staff, who had all been trained on proper operation of the equipment, and
  • Every operator was required to wear safety glasses while operating the grinder (I strictly enforced the wearing of safety glasses and other protective equipment), and
  • The grinder was used perhaps two or three times a week.

As it turns out, machine guard violations are on OSHA’s top ten list for safety violations, and I can see why if inspectors are going to go looking for ticky-tack violations like the one described. My boss told me that if an inspector showed up they were going to find something wrong, I suppose to justify their existence rather than out of any desire to actually promote workplace safety. If the inspector’s motives had been pure of heart he could have just had me adjust the machine, and I would have gladly done so.

OSHA is one of those government agencies about whose existence it’s hard to argue. One may certainly be legitimately concerned about the cost-benefit ratio of the agency’s budget, but the fact is that it is an organization that actually improves the lives of Americans. I’ve found the OSHA training I’ve had to be invaluable in making sure that I and those I supervise go home in one piece. I would, however,  prefer that the field agents remember the intent of the enabling legislation, rather than get caught up in a numbers game.

It’s Here!

Today the first big storm of the season is blowing ashore, with gale-force winds on the coast and gusts and rain in the valley, along with calls for a couple of feet of snow in the mountains. There is a possibility of snow in the valley later this week or early next week as the temperature is expected to plummet when the Canadians export cold air south.

If Oregonians work to form it’ll be hard to get a hotel room at the coast as people flock to watch the storm. I’ve stood on the beach during a blow and while you do have to be aware of the increased surf you don’t have to worry about a fifteen-foot storm surge. It can be quite fun. If someone substitutes ‘likes long walks on the beach’ in their personal ad with ‘likes long walks on the beach in a storm’, you can be sure they’re from the Northwest.

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