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For safer workplaces, get rid of OSHA standards?

February 7, 2012

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Here’s one solution to the prolonged OSHA standard-setting process: Abolish most standards.

Sounds crazy, right? How could OSHA hold employers accountable without standards? Simple: By holding employers accountable to one standard of measurement – whether or not they are keeping a safe workplace for their employees.

Because the vast majority of OSHA standards are applied indiscriminately to employers, the standards themselves have to be constructed in such a way that every employer – from the largest company to the smallest – will be able to comply. The result is a large, wealthy company that could afford to adhere to a stricter standard now doesn’t have to because the standard was created so that small businesses could comply.

“It’s just inconceivable that we’re going to hold large and small companies to the same standard,” former OSHA administrator Charles Jeffress recently said to me while speaking for an unrelated article. “It’s got to be a balance of a safe, responsible workplace within the resources and the knowledge of the people who run the workplace.”

There will never be enough OSHA standards – the agency couldn’t possibly write enough for every conceivable hazard. Furthermore, standards become out of date too quickly for OSHA to effectively update them. As such, Jeffress called for a “dramatic” change in the nation’s approach to regulatory activity.

All standards should be abolished in order to improve workplace safety, he said. In place of the repealed standards, employers should instead be required to meet the very basic undertaking of keeping the workplace safe and free from recognized hazards. To ensure employers are doing a good job at that, OSHA could examine how a workplace measures up to industry norms, whether it complies with voluntary consensus standards, and whether an employer’s approach to a safety solution works well on an individual level.

For example, instead of waiting for a combustible dust standard, employers with combustible dust hazards would be required to follow industry guidelines or voluntary standards to keep their workplaces free from deflagration hazards. Failing to do so would result in OSHA penalties.

The end result will be a less prescriptive approach to regulating workplace safety than today. Instead complying with a lengthy regulation from OSHA based on out-of-date research that dictates exactly how and what an employer must do, employers would be able to look at their unique workplaces and determine for themselves the best way to keep employees safe.

“The ones who are conscientious are going to do what they need to do to keep their workers safe,” Jeffress said. “The ones who aren’t conscientious are going to do whatever they want.”

In many ways, this is similar to the General Duty Clause. But the GDC is hampered in that it can only be applied in the absence of an OSHA standard and can’t be used to impose a stricter abatement method than an existing standard calls for. Jeffress’ method would be able to bypass that by essentially making the GDC the only regulation.

Is this a good solution to the prolonged rulemaking process? Or could a lack of specific measures and instructions lead to more confusion? I’m curious to learn what you think. Let me know in the comment section.


The opinions expressed in "Washington Wire" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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