Can OSHA Survive the Fiscal Cliff?

By Phil La Duke

Two debates rage these days, one regarding the most appropriate response to the so-called fiscal cliff, and the other concerning the effectiveness and the continued need for worker safety regulations.  The convergence of these two debates makes the future of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) both as a law and as an enforcement agency.

For some, the real question is not “will OSHA survive?” but “should it?” The lessons of the rapacious deregulation—the housing crisis, the orgy of banking abuses, and the rape of the poor resultant from usurious payday loan businesses—go largely unlearned or ignored, by those who argue that OSHA is an anachronism.  In effective and bloated, they assert, it’s time for OSHA to go.

For others, OSHA is a sacred cow; to even suggest that OSHA needs to be reorganized is blasphemy. In their minds to dismantle OSHA is tantamount to abandoning safety to the unscrupulous businesses that use workers like chattel.  Without OSHA, they argue, a hundred years of safety will be unceremoniously unraveled.

Both the debate over the fiscal cliff and over the need for, and relevance of, safety regulations, belie deeper conflicts; both are expressions over values.  In the case of the fiscal cliff debates people are arguing if things we as a society are worth the money we currently spending on them, in other words, are we getting our money’s worth for the things we collectively purchase. For many, this debate is about a very basic principle: the role of government.  Some see the fiscal crisis as a golden opportunity to significantly reduce big government, while others see it as an essential battle to defend decades of social advancement. Add to this debate, international controversy surrounding whether or not safety requirements have become excessive and overly burdensome. At the heart of this debate is whether or not we believe that business, left to its own designs, will do the right thing in terms of protecting workers.

I won’t take a side in these debates, but I will say that OSHA is likely to be the big loser.  To some degree OSHA has been the victim of its own success. We just don’t see disasters on the scale of the Triangle Shirt Waist fire anymore.  The success of safety regulation and enforcement has created a global public opinion (far from the consensus, but with enough sympathizers to make it significant) that the workplace is safe enough, and even if isn’t there is scarce little that government can do about it.

OSHA currently lacks the resources to do much more than to respond to complaints.  It offers a myriad of valuable free services that most businesses refuse to use. I have actively promoted OSHA’s free products and services among my customers to whom I consult only to be told that I was crazy if I thought they were going to invite OSHA into their facilities. Each one ended up paying me to do what they could have received free from OSHA. If OSHA is to survive, it needs to proactively cut funding for VPP, training, and its other highly valuable and disappointingly under-used programs and reallocate a portion of the monies saved to investigation and enforcement. Doing so will not only create public good-will as it sees OSHA as actively participating in cost reduction; it will also raise public awareness of the programs.  Increased funding for enforcement will likely bring to light the true state of safety in business today.  Perhaps there will be public outcry at widespread abuses by business or perhaps it will confirm what many believe: that business in America today value safety and do a good job protecting workers. In either event, the public good is served.

For the many of the great unwashed (and uninformed) have been swayed by campaign ads that safety costs jobs. Politicians play free and lose with insinuations that workers had better toughen up and decide whether they want to safe at work or to be unemployed. And if safety costs jobs, it follows that OSHA is a government agency dedicated to eliminating jobs, forcing high-paying low-skill jobs off shores where foreigners do the jobs for pennies on the dollar. If you believe that OSHA does this then you believe that the government is essentially spending your tax dollars to screw you out of your livelihood. Forget whether or not OSHA can survive in this environment and worry can America survive in this environment.

Safety professionals haven’t helped OSHA’s cause.  The propagation of the belief that 90% (or more) of safety is behavioral has created (in addition to a cottage industry of snake-oil salesmen) a belief that OSHA is useless—after all, why have a government agency devoted to ensuring safety by dealing with only 10% or less with the things that actually cause injuries[1] when you can just kick the stupid, lazy, and careless workers in the ass? If one believes that the secret to a safer workplace lies in behavior modification, recognition and reward, and other carrot-and-stick policies that what relevancy does OSHA have? Would we expect OSHA inspectors to audit for motivation? Would it establish standards for recognition and reward?

For many people, OSHA is a vestige of days gone by. They no longer feel the pain of losing loved ones in the workplace and have convinced themselves that it can never happen again. If OSHA hopes to survive (in any meaningful and useful sense, let’s face it there isn’t a politician alive with the gut and gumption to truly end OSHA, but there is a fair chance that it will become so emasculated and underfunded that it will cease to be more than hollow symbol. If OSHA is going to survive and thrive it will have to reinvent itself even if it is only in the public.

[1] For the record I reject the premise that 90% or more of injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors and I understand that OSHA addresses far more than physical hazards and addresses (or seeks to address) behavioral choices through training and awareness.


#bbs, #behavior-based-safety, #fiscal-cliff, #osha, #worker-safety

Playing It Safe Is No Path to Safety


 By Phil La Duke

Uncertain times make us risk adverse. And in a tenuous economic recovery it’s easy for safety professionals to play it safe. Making waves when the organization is looking for ways to cut costs is professional suicide. As the old Eastern-European adage holds: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered.” I suppose you can forgive safety professionals for wanting to stay out of the fray—to just keep their heads down, do their jobs and hope against hope that when the people wielding the axes look to make cuts, the safety professional emerges job intact. While it makes sense to be concerned about your job; it seems like every day there is some new attack on safety. Unfortunately and ironically, the very nature of the safety professional’s job makes playing it safe impossible. Operations leadership needs efficiency gains and overall improvements not just to compete, but to survive, and any function that doesn’t support this is cannon fodder. Businesses just can’t afford to retain safety professionals who aren’t obsessively pursuing better ways to do things. Playing it safe requires you to stay out of sight; do your job well, but not too well. You certainly aren’t going to recommend some risky initiative. What if it doesn’t work? It’s your name and reputation, if not your job itself on the line, why risk it? All these arguments seem to make sense except risk is our business. Safety professionals have to monitor the health of the organization and recommend adjustments—sometimes radical adjustments—where necessary. The days when you could do the same old mediocre job and survive are over. The safety professional’s job is all about taking chances. We have to confront ignorant supervisors who take inappropriate risks in pursuit of production improvements. We have to intervene when maintenance shortcuts put workers in jeopardy. And we have to confront leadership when their priorities are out of whack. But most of all we need to take aggressive steps before intervention is necessary. When times are toughest is when workers need us the most. We have to fight for funding while cuts are being made all around us. When operations slow, we need to go to bat for training (it is practically an O’Henry poem the way businesses are either too busy to provide adequate training or to slow to keep people on the payroll, and thus unable to train them) and preventive maintenance. But one thing we can’t do is remain silent and look the other way while inappropriate risks are being taken. It sounds like I am talking out of both sides of my mouth; last week I went on and on about how safety wasn’t necessarily the number one priority. But consider this: safety is changing, and yes it isn’t always the top priority it is always a criteria for success. So how can you serve two masters? How can you take risks, keep your job, and make the workplace safer? A couple of ways actually: • Do Your Job Better. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and rethink much of what you’ve been doing in safety. Take a hard look at your safety management system and ask yourself if you can achieve the same results (or better) using some other approach. Can you get there cheaper, faster, using a simpler model, or with less infrastructure. Even if you decide to keep doing what you’ve been doing, you should ask yourself these questions (and not just now, periodically, even frequently.) Strip away all the fads and dump any safety activity that doesn’t provide demonstrable and quantifiable value. Forget get what you think you’re achieving through these activities and focus on what you can prove. Oh, and getting results isn’t enough, you have to demonstrate that the effort and resources to achieve these results are actually worth it. While many vendors will tell you that their way is the best way to achieve a result, they are in business to make money, not protect your job. • Re-engineer the Safety Function. It’s not enough for you to do your job better if your safety function isn’t particularly viable. Tear down your safety department and start over. Start by re-writing your charter and re-establishing your goals. Your business has likely changed since you last reorganized your function and you need your goals and activities to align with the changes in business climate and function. We either change or we become extinct. • Renegotiate. Contact everyone with whom you are currently doing business and start over. Too often vendors raise their prices when they find themselves in an economic pinch. Instead of putting up with vendors who take your business for granted, put everything from gloves and earplugs to consulting out for bid. • In-source. The best way to protect your current staffing levels is to stop sourcing their work out to vendors. When the bean counters are looking to save money they aren’t automatically looking for heads to cut from the payroll. • Get Out In Front. Don’t wait for your boss to come to you and tell you that you need to cut costs. Approach your boss with a simple goal of cutting your operating costs by 10% and then do it. When times are good we tend to add little niceties to our function and these “extras” tend to become relics that we carry with us long after we can afford to keep them. • Become Self-Funding. One trick I learned a long time ago is that self-funding departments (that is, functions that save or take in more money than they cost) are the ones most likely to survive drastic restructuring. Identify those areas where you save (or in some rare cases, make) money. Prioritize those activities that bring in the most money while requiring the smallest amount of effort. You’ll typically find that the other activities aren’t as important or crucial as you once believed. It’s never easy to stand up for what you believe, and changing to adapt to a tough environment is never easy. But playing it safe often makes leadership think that you aren’t doing enough to warrant keeping you around. When it comes to protecting your job as a safety professional you gotta take risks.

#playing-it-safe, #re-engineering-safety, #worker-safety

You’re Only As Safe As Your Contractors

Phil La Duke


You can have a robust, innovative hazard management system that is the envy of all other safety professionals. You can have a high-functioning incident investigation process that drills down to root causes and contributors and cascades awareness of risk across the organization. You can even achieve unprecedented gains in incident reduction and risk management. But all this is meaningless if you’re contractors don’t effectively manage worker safety.  A high-profile injury or fatality at your contractor can wipe out decades of hard work, reputation, and community good will in an instant.

For decades, large organizations (manufacturers chiefly, but not exclusively) have been outsourcing dangerous and labor-intensive jobs to contractors.  From a business perspective it’s a pretty good deal, large companies are able to lean-out their operations and focus on their core businesses while eager suppliers gobble up contracts like greedy dogs at the dinner table.  Even some unions are able to pressure the sourcing companies to refrain from union-avoidance activities as consolation for the move from high-wage/benefit jobs to lower paying. Of course the workers are paid less and receive fewer benefits, and many of their jobs end up in the third world with little safety oversight.  (But this piece isn’t about the immorality of outsourcing.) One of the most attractive things about outsourcing is the seeming ability to outsource risk and liability for injuries.

But other cases the jobs only move on paper. Floors once mopped by employees are now mopped by contractors. Instrument panels once assembled by traditional employees are now assembled by contractors, sometimes only a couple of feet from where employees once did the work. The move to contractors that work under the sourcing company’s roof has created an environment where some employees don’t count. When a contractor dies in many workplaces he dies largely unmourned.  The sourcing company is so unconcerned about the injury that most can’t even screw up enough moral indignation to point a finger. For its part, the contractor takes a Doritosesque “crunch all you want; we’ll make more “ approach.  All parties agree that the loss is a crying shame, but after all,  life goes on.  Safety isn’t a priority for most contractors; at least not really (a good share of them THINK it is, but it really isn’t). Sure  they put up the “___ days without an injury” poster and may even have a green cross tacked up in the dingy little cube of the beleaguered, over-worked, and part-time safety professional.

Where the sourcing company sees it incumbent on the contractor to address safety training and enforcement and the contractor feels that—because the sourcing company controls the physical environment in which the workers do their jobs—there is a reasonable expectation that the sourcing company will “own” safety.

Contractors Aren’t the Problem

Contractors aren’t necessarily to blame. Often contractors are unsophisticated in the their management of safety. Entrepreneurships tend to focus on high-profit, aggressive growth, and customer service. Focusing on one business element means that you aren’t focused on others.  Workers in entrepreneurial contractors tend to be more transitory than in more mature organizations that tend to lead to a view of workers as replaceable.  These organizations rarely invest in training or safety—it doesn’t make sense to invest in workers that won’t be around in a year. But even those contractors who want to invest workers will find a rough row to hoe. Activities like safety and training often fall by the wayside. The job of managing safety (and training for that matter) remotely is challenging even for the most sophisticated companies. And the customer’s relentless demands for cost reductions compound the problem.

The Law Hasn’t Helped

Government regulation hasn’t helped a whole lot. If a contractor has not received the mandatory safety training the government doesn’t go after the sourcing company, it fines the contractor, not the sourcing company. Workers’ Compensation (and its overseas equivalents) costs are the problem of the employee of record (that is, the contractor) and so little attention is focused on the sourcing company. Contractors continue to be squeezed and when costs are cut they tend to gut training and safety budgets.

A Shift Is Emerging

 Government agencyies are rapidly working to close this loophole.  Auditors are paying far greater attention to how vendor safety  is ensured. And, mindful of this shift, many sourcing departments are concerned about the safety record and management of prospective contractors. Many large companies use the safety records and safety management approach as criteria for awarding contracts. This practice is particularly common in the construction industry, but is steadily growing in in other industries.  Because the responsibility for safety enforcement and training can be murky in these situations, it can be easy for companies to lose sight of responsibility and accountability.

A Shared Burdon For Safety

In the U.S. outsourcing jobs to vendors who work under your own roof is wide-spread and growing. This creates two environment one where a facility houses many employees of another company, and another where the population of the company is spread over numerous location (typically customer sites).

When an organization outsources worker to contractors both the sourcing company and the contractor have a shared responsibility for safety. This legal requirement[1] is an exception to the laws prohibiting “co-employment”. This important because there are yowling HR people in many organizations that erroneously contend that it is illegal for the sourcing company to provide training (even safety training). There is a similar exemption for disciplinary actions as a result of safety violations.

Where There is Confusion, There is Risk

As long as there is confucion around exactly who is responsible for safety training and enforcement companies (both sourcing companies and contractors) face significant risk.

What To Do About It

Clearly there is an on-going problem, but what can and should be done about it? The first and best solution for addressing this issue is collaboration. Safety professionals from both the sourcing and vendor organizations need to collaborate to find optimal ways to manage safety. In terms of how safety is managed there should be no distinction made between employees and contractors. This is pretty easy to do when we are talking about enforcement or safety training but these are only a very small part of what needs to be done to ensure workplace safety.  Safety professionals must also cooperate to make certain that everyone is trained to competency level before they begin the job.  Here’s where it can get tricky. Training in the worker’s core competency is generally seen as the legal responsibility of the employee of record (that is, the contractor), while the host company must provide esoteric training that is specific to the workplace.

This issue is complicated, and is not likely to get any simpler anytime soon.  But when worker’s lives are at stake no one can shirk their duties simply because they are hard or complicated.


[1] In the United States, although similar requirements exist in other industrial nations as well.

#contractor-safety, #responsibility-for-contractor-safety, #worker-safety

The Most Frequent Reasons That Safety Fails: When Good Safety Systems Go Bad

By Phil La Duke


For many organizations the great recession has forever changed the way organizations gauge the success of its safety efforts—and for a lot of us—our safety management systems that were once judge effective by senior managers are now considered failures.  There are a relatively few reasons that safety systems fail.


Lack of Vision

To truly accomplish anything, an organization must have a clear and specific vision of “what success looks like”.  Unless the organization knows what it means to accomplish any progress toward the shadowy goal is only luck.  But what does a vision for safety look like? For many under-performing safety organizations safety is as simple as “nobody has died recently”.  This may sound crass, but the reality is that decades of inappropriate incentives and hackneyed quasi-behavior based safety (which for me, is redundant, but I am trying to acknowledge that there are a handful of elements of BBS that an even smaller population has managed to achieve some meager results.) have created corporate cultures where the only acceptable response to being injured is to conceal it and seek treatment outside the workplace. What’s more, safety professionals who are asleep at the wheel are content in their ignorance.  These safety professionals rationalize their under-performance systems with an “if-it-aint-broke-don’t-fix-it” attitude that is likely to get someone killed.  Wake up people! The injuries are still there and risk is climbing until it will someday soon reach the threshold where catastrophe is all but certain.

An Over Focus on Tactics

I’m not knocking tactics—heck, tactics are the activities that get things done.  Organizations that have marginal safety functionality tend to over-emphasize the tactical while ignoring the strategic.  Let’s face it, the Safety function is fraught with tactical, we keep records, file for permits, track training, and a host of other tasks that really don’t keep people safe.  In other cases, the tactics are misaligned against the strategy.  In organizations where the long-suffering safety professionals labor tirelessly in pursuit of nothing in particular, you most likely looking at a failing safety system.

Lack of Change Management Expertise

We would ask an accountant to retool a machine, or an electrician to manage your cash flow, but for many companies, it makes perfect sense to entrust the safety professional (or worse a pig-eyed, mouth-breathing, BBS vendor turned culture expert) to drive change in the organization. Tragically, the opportunity presented by C-suite executive’s dissatisfaction with the status quo is being squandered by schemes that put the safety professional in the driver’s seat of organizational change.  This is not to say there aren’t good organizational change vendors who truly understand safety, but if they were advocating a BBS model five years ago and have not shifted to a “leadership-driven” or a “culture change” model, chances are good that the “next big thing” that they are selling will be a costly disaster.

Lack of Measurements

The world’s safest companies understand the relationship between safety and overall operating efficiency.  Poor safety performance is typically symptomatic of deeper organizational problems.  It should surprise no one that companies that perform most efficiently overall also perform better at safety than companies that struggle in other areas.  One of the keys to becoming (or remaining for that matter) a high performing organization is score carding and measurements.  Safety score carding requires a company to collect, display, interpret, and act on a combination of leading and lagging indicators.

No Return On Investment

For half a century the safety function has been allowed to exist in a world where money was no object. (At this point a fair number of you have jutting your bottom lip out in a petulant pout, because you were told at one time or another that you couldn’t go to that year’s conference boondoggle to China for four weeks. Suck it up, you know what I’m talking about.) Safety was seen as the right thing to do in the best case and a necessary evil in the worst.  Companies who are successful in terms of safety  (and even those who are fairly indifferent to safety) expect the safety function to produce a quantifiable return on investment.

Excessive Complexity and Bureaucracy

Perhaps the most destructive practice to safety is the tendency for Safety to empire build.  Many of the systems currently in vogue require numerous players to actively engage in complex and or bureaucratic activities.  In workplaces where Operations is expected to do far more with unprecedented fewer resources the idea that a supervisor will routinely watch each of his or her team members perform their job and offer feedback is beyond absurd.  When you give smart people limited options and expect them to do time-consuming tasks that provide not tangible pay off you had best realize that they will only pretend to do those tasks (well, expect for those who simply get frustrated and quit).  Eventually the complexity and unsustainability of these systems combine to create a catastrophic breakdown in safety. If you are reading this and happen to be selling one of these systems, my advice is that you better learn to simplify your system and reduce its operating cost.

Insufficient Leadership Commitment

It’s said that when Cortez came to the new world he burned his ships, to demonstrate the inevitability of change.  There was no turning back, to waiver was to perish.  It’s this kind of unmistakable and impermeable dedication to change that leaders (and I would include the safety professionals in this group) must exhibit to successfully drive change (the great management thinker, Peter Drucker, once said that “you don’t manage change, you create it.”  Drucker believed that we needed to continuously drive change toward improvement.  Safety leaders who are content with their same old tired inefficient methods will ultimately see decline to the point of ruin.

Certainly the failures of management systems aren’t complete and utter system failures; but just because the system doesn’t crumble into ruins don’t mean the problems that many organizations aren’t serious.  To defend inaction by claiming that things aren’t as bad as they could be is akin to claiming that you needn’t repair the damage done by a house fire simply because the flames failed to burn the house down to its foundation..

#broken-safety-systems, #safety-measurement, #why-safety-systems-fail, #worker-safety