A look inside OSHA’s advisory committees
Sometimes a problem is simply too large for one group to solve.
Ensuring the safety of America’s workforce is a large task, and OSHA – the main U.S. agency tasked with that responsibility – at times has asked for assistance.
In 2010, OSHA published a final rule updating its Cranes and Derricks in Construction Standard. Development of the final rule, which took 12 years, began with a workgroup established by the agency’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health.
ACCSH is one of five committees that advise the secretary of labor and OSHA on a variety of workplace safety and health issues. The others are:
- National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health
- Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health
- Maritime Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health
- Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee
“OSHA gains access to valuable information from advisory committee members’ expertise on many different issues affecting policies and programs,” an OSHA spokesperson told Safety+Health. “OSHA and America’s workers benefit when the public is provided an opportunity to play an active role in the government’s decision-making process.”
Inner workings and measuring effectiveness
Committee members, typically considered experts in their respective fields, are nominated by their peers or are self-nominated, then appointed for two-year terms by the secretary of labor. The committees comprise an equal number of employee and employer representatives, and also may include representatives from government, the public, or safety and health professionals. (See “A closer look: OSHA’s five advisory committees.”)
This balanced approach, particularly concerning employer and employee representatives, helps set OSHA advisory committees apart from other groups – such as labor unions and business organizations – that may offer opinions to the agency.
“With other stakeholder groups, they may not have a full and complete balance. The group may not have the benefit of labor participation, or OSHA participation,” said Jim Thornton, director of environmental, health and safety for Newport News Shipbuilding and the current chair of MACOSH.
Unlike other groups, OSHA committees are statutorily established as a singularly important stakeholder group, according to Michael Silverstein, former director of the Washington State Plan OSHA program. Silverstein served as chair of NACOSH for two years before he retired in 2012.
The committees address issues dictated by committee members and requests from OSHA. Frequently, workgroups composed of committee members are established within each committee to tackle specific issues. The workgroups likewise host public meetings, which usually take place before a full committee meeting.
“Some say that’s where the sausage gets made,” Thornton said of the workgroup meetings. “Issues are discussed; positions are taken.”
Once a workgroup develops and approves a position or recommendation, the full committee votes on whether to present it to OSHA.
Beyond what the committees recommend or help publish, how can their effectiveness be measured?
The answer, Thornton said, is in the data.
“Injuries and illnesses are declining at a rapid rate, and have been since the inception of MACOSH,” he said. Other industries covered by the committees have seen declining rates as well. Although Thornton does not suggest MACOSH is singularly responsible for a decline in injury and illness rates in the maritime industry, he believes the committee has had a clear effect.
Occasionally, recommendations offered by the committees are not immediately acted on.
In a series of unanimous recommendations in late 2011, NACOSH members urged OSHA to move forward on proposed rules, adding that they were “deeply distressed” that a proposal to update the agency’s Silica Standard had been long delayed. The committee has since repeated these recommendations multiple times.
“It was understandably frustrating that OSHA – while acknowledging the importance and validity of NACOSH’s recommendations – in general did not react to them very quickly,” Silverstein said.
A number of reasons may explain why the agency does not immediately follow up on certain recommendations. Sometimes they are political: NACOSH favors adding a specific column to OSHA injury logs for work-related musculoskeletal disorders, but the agency is barred by Congress from pursuing such a change. Other times, the lengthy rulemaking process may prevent OSHA from acting on committee recommendations.
Even when OSHA does not follow through on recommendations, the committees can still raise awareness about issues, Silverstein said. As an example, he pointed to the silica rulemaking that, at press time, had been under review by the Office of Management and Budget for two years. (Review periods are not supposed to exceed 90 days.) NACOSH’s push for the agency to be allowed to move forward on the rule drew attention from congressional committees and the media.
“I think it’s fair to assume that OSHA was aided in trying to move these important issues ahead by recommendations from the committee, even if some of these things have not yet happened,” Silverstein said.
When confronted by pushback from the agency, committees may change tactics. OSHA is not legally bound to take a committee’s advice, notes Pete Stafford, ACCSH chair and director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department.
“There’s no point in ACCSH to come to recommend to the agency what they should be doing in regulation and policy that the agency has no intention of doing,” he said.
For years, ACCSH pushed OSHA to create a rule requiring separate restroom facilities for women on construction sites. However, OSHA does not necessarily view the issue as a health hazard, Stafford said. As a result, Stafford restructured some of ACCSH’s workgroups, and the committee developed guidelines on the issue for construction sites. When OSHA can or will not move on rulemakings, the committees can help formulate best practices, Stafford said.
Committees will not always back away from issues they deem important, however. Jim Johnson, vice president of workplace initiatives for the National Safety Council and a member of NACOSH, pointed to OSHA’s development of an Injury and Illness Prevention Program Standard and the committee’s push for the rule’s development. OSHA administrator David Michaels has called I2P2 the agency’s No. 1 priority, and NACOSH agrees. The committee continues to call for the rule to remain a top priority and urges its development in the face of a slow regulatory process.
“We understand the limitations that OSHA may have,” said Rixio Medina, process safety auditor for BP’s Safety & Operational Risk and a NACOSH member. “The only thing NACOSH can do is continue recommending and continue voicing opinions in support of some of these initiatives we think are important.”
Room for improvement
Silverstein said NACOSH is more effective than it has been in the past, but all five OSHA advisory committees could be improved.
Having only two or three meetings a year in which the committees can formally make recommendations for OSHA, the committees may fall behind on current events. Silverstein used as an example the efforts to ensure cleanup workers’ safety and health in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Both OSHA and NIOSH were operating in real time in trying to handle the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” he said. “But the committee wasn’t operating in real time; the committee was operating in slow motion.” In this type of situation, it might be better if the committees met more regularly than every few months, Silverstein suggested. He said more resources from OSHA would help make this possible.
The OSHA spokesperson told S+H at press time that the Department of Labor was exploring the possibility of hosting “virtual” or electronic meetings as a way to reduce travel and expenses while increasing the frequency of advisory committee meetings.
Another area in which the process could be improved, Stafford said, is knowledge sharing among the various committees. “In some respect, I’m sure we’re dealing with the same issues,” he said, adding that bringing together the committees in some type of forum could be helpful.
When asked if this approach is something DOL has considered, the OSHA spokesperson said agency staff who work with the various committees meet quarterly to share information on overlapping concerns.
Despite some of the setbacks and limitations of the committees, everyone who spoke to S+H for this article agreed that the committees are vital in shaping and improving OSHA.
“These committees do play an important role,” Johnson said. “It is an opportunity for a diverse and well-represented group of people coming together and trying to get the right thing done.”