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Shaping the future

December 1, 2011

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Occupational safety and health leaders discuss upcoming challenges, strategies

By Kyle W. Morrison, senior associate editor

The nature of today’s workforce is changing, and safety must change with it to keep workers protected.

This was the theme of the occupational safety and health keynote session that took place Nov. 1 at the 2011 National Safety Council Congress & Expo in Philadelphia. Speakers included OSHA administrator David Michaels; NIOSH Director John Howard; and Michael Silverstein, assistant director of industrial safety and health at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

According to Silverstein, current laws fail to address several emerging safety challenges – including an aging and more diverse workforce, and growing technologies such as nanotechnology.

Other priorities for the occupational safety community, Silverstein said, include a lack of OSHA coverage for public workers in nearly half of U.S. states, a lack of regulatory structure to address musculoskeletal disorders – one of the leading causes of employee injuries – and hazards that have long been recognized but remain common causes of injuries or deaths, such as trenching hazards.

I2P2

Michaels said one way to address emerging hazards without having to promulgate regulations for each one is through an Injury and Illness Prevention Program Standard – a rule many State Plan programs already have and one federal OSHA is pursuing.

All three speakers acknowledged the concern that an Injury and Illness Prevention Program Standard, also known as I2P2, could result in a “paper system” in which a program is written but never fully integrated into the worksite. “It’s a book on a shelf,” Howard cautioned. “It’s really never implemented. It’s really never maintained, and it doesn’t become part of the culture.”

Howard said requiring employers’ programs to be “effective” could help prevent such neglect, and Silverstein said the rule’s focus should be on requiring companies to identify and fix hazards.

Addressing the media after the keynote, Michaels said the idea that I2P2 is a “job-killing” rule is part of an anti-regulatory mantra promoted by OSHA’s critics who want proposed regulations, in general, to fail. Most companies already have an injury prevention program, and Michaels claimed employers have shown “tremendous support” for I2P2.

“Within large companies, you’ve got a split between the safety and health professionals – who are all in favor of it – and their lobbyists, who are dead-set against it,” Silverstein said. He added that members of the safety and health community have an obligation to speak up and support the standard to provide “some tempering and balance to this whole political debate.”
 
Collaboration

In a time of fewer resources, OSHA has turned to State Plan states for help with federal programs, including I2P2.

“There’s a great advantage in being able to base our work on the very different experiences in the United States,” Michaels said, adding that the agency also has worked closely with the Department of Defense, whose safety program has significantly reduced injuries and deaths.

Howard complimented OSHA on such recent coordination with the states, singling out the agency’s nationwide heat awareness program. Instead of starting from scratch, federal OSHA reached out to the states for advice and help, a cooperation Howard said was always meant to occur within the OSHA family but did not until recently.

Silverstein noted that while the State Plan programs and federal OSHA are unable to share enforcement resources, they can share voluntary resources such as education, outreach and consultation. “That’s an area where we can … leverage impact, and we can share by coordinating,” he said. “If each of the 26 [State Plan] states produce a good guidance document in a different area, and we share them all, we’ve multiplied what we’ve done by 26 times.” 

– Associate Editor Ashley Johnson contributed to this article.

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