On The Agenda 2013: OSHA Outlook

While Congress is preoccupied with sorting out financial issues, President Obama’s re-election is not likely to result in any major immediate changes to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) activities. As a result, you can expect more of the same policy priorities this year. That means OSHA will continue to focus its efforts implementing an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (I2P2) Standard, emphasizing shared responsibility with state occupational safety and health plans, and enforcing safety violations in the workplace. With that focus, any other pending regulations will continue to move slowly, if at all, toward promulgation.

The Electric Power Transmission and Distribution and Electrical Protective Equipment Standard is the regulation that OSHA will release soon. This standard has been in the works since 2003. It addresses some key issues, including the revision in minimum approach distance tables, host/contractor responsibilities, and flame-retardant (FR) clothing. Although there are a few concerns, general management and labor has supported it. This past fall, it was on its last stop at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Two groups representing management and labor were able to voice their concerns to OMB. Depending on their response, it will go back to OSHA for publication, or a revision will be needed to address concerns

Other rules still on OSHA’s agenda that could affect the electrical construction industry include Confined Spaces in Construction and Occupational Exposure to Crystalline Silica. But, the progress of these rules, given the industry and economic climate, is anyone’s guess. More significant are the items not on the list. OSHA has temporarily removed the proposal to modify the recordkeeping regulation to include a column for musculoskeletal injuries. It will be interesting to see if this returns in the future. Many felt it was a backdoor to an ergonomic regulation.

Not to be overlooked in the regulatory arena is the Hazard Communication Rule revision addressing coordination with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). Finalized last year, in 2013, it will require employers to train employees on the new hazard classifications, labels and safety data sheets. This must be done by December 2013.

Getting back to the impact of the election results, there is one other factor that may influence OSHA’s direction. That factor is contained in one major question: Will OSHA Administrator David Michaels be asked to remain in his current position? It is very likely that he will, and there is no reason to believe that he would decline the opportunity. If he chooses to accept the responsibility, it is further evidence that OSHA will continue to push I2P2, his top priority for the private sector.

Under Michaels, OSHA has instituted initiatives and incentives to encourage employers to adopt safety and health programs (e.g., the Voluntary Safety and Health Management Program Guidelines and national and international consensus standards). These programs can all be construed as some form of I2P2. They share a common goal to help employers minimize injuries and illnesses that occur at the workplace.

Unfortunately, these initiatives don’t provide the complete benefits that a comprehensive I2P2 requirement offers. The work done by OSHA over the last several years in developing this standard through the federal rulemaking process may very likely come to fruition in 2013. If done, it mandates employers put a systemic approach to safety in place. The result: employers will be responsible for identifying and then addressing all hazards, setting the stage for OSHA to cite an employer’s failure to deal with any hazard. It will also mark a major coup for OSHA.

Regardless of whether the I2P2 passes, any victory moving it or any other standard forward will be notable. Given the current state of the economy and the increasing public demand for lowering the national deficit, OSHA will be hard-pressed to accomplish much. There are going to be considerable budget cuts across the board for government bodies. OSHA will not be immune from these decreases in spending. Some of the hardest hit areas could very well be the funding that helps support state occupational safety and health plans.

During the first Obama administration, OSHA placed a great deal of emphasis on state occupational safety and health programs and self-state regulation. At present, state plans receive nearly 50 percent of their funding from the federal government. If drastic cuts are made to these programs, one has to wonder what impact they would ultimately have on worker safety and whether or not state plans will be able to continue operating at the same effectiveness and efficiency levels with reduced federal support.

Overall, Obama’s fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget request for OSHA includes roughly $565.5 million. That number is slightly higher than the FY 2012 enacted budget of roughly $564.8 million. However, this proposal introduces some very innovative strategies to cut agency spending. Unfortunately, many of these ideas are not likely to gain traction with the House of Representatives remaining in the hands of Republican leadership.

One of the biggest proposed changes in the FY 2013 budget request is the consolidation of OSHA regional offices. Specifically, OSHA believes it can save $1.3 million and eliminate three full-time positions by combining offices in Regions 1 and 2 (Boston and New York); Regions 7 and 8 (Kansas City and Denver); and Regions 9 and 10 (San Francisco and Seattle). The plans do not offer details regarding which offices would be closed.

In reference to the consolidation of regions, Michaels said, “In an attempt to save money, we are proposing to streamline agency operations in the regions similar to other government agencies, If OSHA were to consolidate regions as suggested in the proposal that would result in a decrease of $677,604 from the FY 2012 funding levels.”

The budget justification also noted: “This reengineering of the agency’s targeting of enforcement resources is designed to address the priority performance strategy of reducing injuries and illnesses through enforcement.”

Another major proposed budget cut is for federal compliance assistance. The administration is seeking to decrease funding for the program by $2.48 million, eliminating 33 full-time employees.

“OSHA is maintaining its emphasis on reaching out to vulnerable and hard-to-reach workers in high-risk jobs as well as small businesses and OSHA will continue its award-winning outreach efforts around such hazards as heat exposure, hearing protection and fall prevention. The cuts outlined in our FY 2013 budget request focus primarily on employer compliance assistance,” Michaels said.

These ideas paint a clear picture of OSHA’s aggressive posture on enforcement. Regardless of cuts, OSHA is working to ensure that the decreased funding does not have any significant effect on this arena. Perhaps, given the current state of the economy, stricter enforcement and increased issuance of citations and fines could be seen as a source of revenue to offset agency operating costs.

The budget request would also eliminate the OSHA Data Initiative and the Office of International Affairs, resulting in $2.2 million and $1 million in savings, respectively.

“Our budget request focuses on programs that will help keep America’s work force strong and innovative, while providing needed worker protections,” said Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis. “It also makes responsible and reasonable cuts that are rooted in current economic realities and a continued focus on increased efficiency and effectiveness.”

Though the FY 2013 budget request eliminates positions and proposes cuts in some areas, it aims to grow programs in others. The proposal includes an increase of $4.8 million and 37 new full-time employees for OSHA’s whistleblower program.

“The significant increase in OSHA whistleblower funding will help the agency address persistent backlogs and heavy and increasing caseloads for its whistleblower investigators. These increased resources are critical,” Michaels noted.

This is another indicator that OSHA will maintain an aggressive tact toward enforcement.

Solis said of the entire Department of Labor’s budget request: “You should know that our fiscal year 2013 budget request reflects our commitment to revitalizing our nation’s economy and to building an America that is built to last—where everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same set of rules. However, in light of current economic realities, and like many families across the country, we had to make some tough choices to make sure our top priorities were supported.”

There are some major innovative proposed changes and ideas included in the administration’s FY 2013 budget request for OSHA. However, the enacted version will probably look more like the last fiscal year budget for OSHA. The new ideas presented in the proposal will not likely go away completely, if 2014 midterm elections sway the House of Representatives to the Democratic side, some of these proposed changes may become a reality.

There was some cause for concern among occupational safety and health advocates in 2010 when the number of workers killed on the job increased significantly. However, in 2009 and 2011, the number of work-related deaths were the two lowest ever recorded, not to mention job-related injuries and illnesses have steadily decreased in the past four years. Whether attributable to the Obama administration or not, let’s hope that this trend continues for the next four years.

About the Author

Joe O'Connor

Freelance Writer

Joe O'Connor is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor...

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