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OSHA’s Safety Management Program
There is a definite and proven link between strong and efficient health and safety management and reduced occupational injuries and illnesses. A robust health and safety management program can benefit any workplace no matter how large or small. Recognizing this, OSHA developed an assistance program called VPP for Voluntary Protection Program. This first in a two part series describes how this program came about and its essential elements.

OSHA celebrated its 40th birthday in 2011 and to commemorate the milestone, the Assistant Secretary of Labor, Dr. David Michaels, gave some excellent remarks at the Center for American Progress in April.1 The Occupational Safety and Health Act created by President Nixon and the Congress forty years ago recognized that workers deserve work places free of hazards and that many workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities are preventable and not just “Acts of God.” President Nixon described the Occupational Safety and Health Act as “…one of the most important pieces of legislation…ever passed…” Dr. Morton Corn, appointed as Secretary of Labor by President Ford, went even further stating the OSH Act was “…a new right in the Bill of Rights—a right to a safe and healthful workplace.”

The take-away message for us from Dr. Michaels’ remarks: the evidence is in and OSHA has made significant strides in ensuring all workers have the basic human right to a safe workplace. Consider these statistics cited by Dr. Michaels:

  • Worker deaths are down from about 14,000 in 1970 to 4,400 in 2009.
  • Reported injuries and illnesses are down from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to fewer than 4 in 2009.
  • Worker exposures to asbestos, lead, and benzene have been dramatically reduced following enactment of specific OSHA standards in recent years.

Clearly, progress has occurred. But, 4,400 worker deaths are still way too many, more than twelve deaths per day. We can and must continue to do better. Because, for one, in addition to these deaths there are more than 3 million workers that suffer serious job-related injuries each year and many thousands more that develop serious job-related illnesses. Injuries and illnesses that can destroy families financially and in many other ways.

Now the big question: How do we keep moving forward, improving working conditions and workplace safety? First, we have to admit that on-the-job injuries, illnesses, and deaths are preventable. Preventable by using basic safety precautions such as preventing falls, eliminating hazards and exposures, and guarding equipment and machinery. In other words, preventable by just following existing OSHA safety standards. As Dr. Michaels’ stated “OSHA doesn’t kill jobs; it stops jobs from killing people.”

Much More than Enforcement
We must not think of OSHA as “the enforcer” with its only purpose being to levy hefty fines when we are caught doing things wrong. OSHA is a resource, one that can help in big ways. In fact, one OSHA service provides free information and assistance to small businesses before they are cited for violations, making more than 30,000 on-site visits each year. If you feel you have hit a wall give them a call.

 

More than twenty years ago OSHA first issued voluntary Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines.2 Recognizing that a strong correlation exists between sound and effective safety and health management and a low incidence of occupational illnesses and injuries, OSHA released general guidelines to help businesses and employers to develop systematic policies, procedures, and practices to protect employees from job-related safety and health hazards. These voluntary safety management guidelines incorporate four general principles:

  • Encourage employers to implement and maintain policies and practices that recognize and protect employees from occupational safety and health hazards.
  • Effective programs are able to identify, evaluate, and prevent or control general workplace hazards, specific job hazards, and foreseeable potential hazards.
  • Effective programs look beyond specific regulatory requirements and address all hazards whether or not compliance is at issue.
  • Effective practice is more important than the extent of written programs, but as the size and complexity of the worksite increase, so do the hazards and written guidance is needed to make sure communication of policies is clear and implementation is fair and consistent.

At the heart of the voluntary safety management program are four major elements that define an effective program. Based on the cumulative evidence, systematic policies and practices are fundamental in reducing work-related illnesses and injuries and their associated high economic costs including workers’ compensation, insurance, and medical services. Ensuring your program incorporates these four elements will strengthen safety and health efforts and aid its success.

Management commitment and employee involvement. Management commitment is the motivating force for the business or organization and provides the resources necessary to implement the programs. Commitment by management tells workers that their safety and health are valuable and important to the organization. Employee involvement is paramount and provides a way for workers to take responsibility for protection of safety and health for themselves and their fellow workers.

Workplace and job hazard analysis. An effective management program actively examines the worksite and specific jobs to anticipate and prevent unsafe conditions. Regular analysis identifies existing hazards as well as operations that might create new ones.

Prompt implementation of hazard prevention and controls. Once a hazard or potential hazard is found or recognized, elimination or controls are undertaken in a timely manner. Engineering controls, design, or re-design are implemented first where feasible. Where engineering solutions to eliminate the hazard are not feasible, controls are put in place to reduce the exposure hazards and prevent unsafe conditions.

Health and safety training. Comprehensive training is tailored to the size and complexity of the facility and the nature of the hazards. Safety training addresses responsibilities of all personnel and is best when tied to job practices and performance requirements.

In the next issue we will complete this two part series on OSHA’s VPP with details of the program and examples of successes. Until then we encourage you to give VPP and, more importantly, proactive safety, some thought.

References

  1. “OSHA at 40”, Michaels, Dr. David. Remarks at Center of American Progress. Washington, D.C. 2011. http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=SPEECHES&p...
  2. Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines.” Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Washington, D.C. 1989. http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_id=12909&p_table...

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene Certified Industrial Hygienist and the senior IH with the University of Florida’s Environmental Health and Safety Division. He has 24 years of experience in all facets of occupational health and safety and specializes in conducting exposure assessments and health hazard evaluations.

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