The measure of success

Fatality, injury and illness rates have steadily declined for the past several years. OSHA administrator David Michaels – like his predecessors – has claimed at least some credit for this decline, attributing it to actions his agency has taken.

But such claims may lack the evidence to back them up.

During a June 16 House Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing, members focused on the relationship between OSHA and state-run occupational safety and health programs – particularly federal oversight of State Plan states. 

OSHA released a series of reports last year analyzing the performance of State Plan programs. Some of the reports seemingly suggested that a number of State Plans were deficient because they did not operate in the same manner as federal OSHA (which is not a requirement for State Plans). For instance, an OSHA report on California’s program suggested the state should adopt policies – such as violation classification, hazard identification and others – to be equivalent to federal OSHA’s program.

Subcommittee Chair Tim Walberg (R-MI) started a round of questioning at the hearing with what he called a “straightforward” question: If federal OSHA were to be scrutinized in the same manner as State Plan programs, would it be considered effective?

“I’m not sure I can give an answer to that,” responded Elliot Lewis, assistant inspector general for audit at the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General. OIG released a report in March concluding that neither the states nor federal OSHA have measurements that can establish a causal relationship between their activities and rate reductions. “I can’t tell you because OSHA couldn’t tell you they know for a fact, ‘We took these actions; it has this impact,’” Lewis said. 

The bottom line, as Lewis explained at the hearing, was that even though fatalities and injuries and illnesses are decreasing, it is not clear as to why that decrease is occurring. A variety of factors could be influencing the rate decline outside the OSHA programs, including changes to demographics and the economy.

To be fair, OSHA undoubtedly has had a positive impact on workplace safety given the broad range of work it does – from safety training grants and compliance assistance programs to cooperative partnerships and enforcement of regulations.

But just how much of an influence safety agencies have on the nation’s safety culture is a more problematic matter, and one that needs to be addressed. After the OIG report was released, OSHA said it would work toward developing impact measures for both federal and state OSH agencies, and Michaels previously expressed a desire to use more leading indicators to measure safety in the country.

State relationships

The hearing also covered the importance of creating measurements for determining whether State Plan programs match up. Part of that is defining what “at least as effective as” OSHA means.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, states that choose to operate their own OSH program must be “at least as effective” as federal OSHA. But as Kevin Beauregard, chair of the Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association, pointed out at the hearing, State Plan states do not and should not operate identically to federal OSHA.

“Rather, they should continue to serve as laboratories of innovation for moving occupational safety and health issues forward, and for fueling creative approaches to ensuring the occupational safety and health of workers,” he said in his written testimony.

The problem is, how do you measure a program and determine if it is “as effective as” another program that operates differently? Compounding that problem is that, according to Lewis, OSHA does not do a good job of evaluating itself, leaving a baseline that is hazy at best to gauge the State Plans.

So OSHA needs to develop better metrics to measure its own effectiveness, and then define how effective a separate state program can be based on the federal program.

Walberg announced at the hearing that he would request the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study on federal OSHA’s enforcement program using the same standards OSHA applied when evaluating State Plans. Perhaps that will be a good start.

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

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