Washington Update: Mischaracterizations and misperceptions

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We live in a world of spin.

Sometimes the spin is deliberate, when one political group misrepresents circumstances on purpose. Other times it’s inadvertent, such as a group misunderstanding the facts.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) recently reflected on how spin can distract people from what is important. Speaking April 19 at a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, Harkin somberly noted that some people are readily willing to share stories about how “ridiculous” OSHA can be.

For example, Harkin recalled how years ago he saw farmers in Iowa placing toilets in farm fields that said, “Thanks OSHA,” suggesting the agency required the toilets to be there. This, of course, was not true. The agency was working on a rule to require worker access to toilet facilities.

“Nonetheless, it invoked a lot of pictures and a lot of inflammatory type of comments,” Harkin said. “It was always something that someone would pick out that they thought was a ridiculous rule.”

In another example given during the hearing, Michael Silverstein, environmental and occupational health professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and former assistant director for industrial safety and health at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, said OSHA’s regulatory process came under intense criticism in the 1990s. Specifically, the conversation was divided on OSHA’s then-proposed Bloodborne Pathogens Standard (1910.1030).

While the agency worked on the proposed rule, critics claimed the new regulation would prevent dentists from returning removed teeth to children. Despite the claims not being true, the discussion changed from preventing contraction of AIDS and hepatitis among health care workers to how children would lose the ability to find a quarter under their pillow.

“The debate became a debate about whether or not OSHA had killed the tooth fairy,” Silverstein said.

Although it could be argued that the pervasive mischaracterization and misperception of facts is simply part of the political discourse, it has real-life consequences. When the conversation derails from promoting how rules can save lives to how “ridiculous” they are, it hurts workers and their families who depend on OSHA’s regulations and enforcement to keep them safe on the job.

The VPP option

Misrepresentations are not limited to negative criticism, however. During the hearing, the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), suggested that OSHA pursue an “all-of-the-above” approach to workplace safety, and proposed the agency do more with the Voluntary Protection Programs. VPP identifies and recognizes employers that are doing the best job at protecting workers and creating a safe working environment.

“We should be expanding VPP to smaller employers and making it even more effective,” Enzi said.

VPP is a popular and effective program, and proponents have ratcheted up their support in recent years after the Obama administration attempted to cut its funding. (This debatable move – originally proposed to free up funding for enforcement programs and rulemaking – has since been abandoned by the administration.)

Despite the program’s success, it is sometimes misrepresented as something other than a recognition program – a misinterpretation Silverstein was quick to point out when Enzi asked if VPP workplaces were generally safer than non-VPP sites.

“Sure they’re safer because that’s the requirement for them … to be given the VPP star,” Silverstein said. “They’ve been mischaracterized, I think, as programs which cause workplaces to become safe. In fact, they recognize those that are already safe.”

VPP is a good program, no doubt, and it offers goals that all employers should strive for. But the program isn’t – and shouldn’t be – considered a substitute for OSHA rules.

Instead of spinning a program to make it appear to be the answer for everyone, or spinning wild theories about hurdles a new regulation may present, perhaps a better idea is to stop spinning altogether and focus on the really important question: What should be done to save lives?

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

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