OSHA Enforcement: The Last 50 Years and What Needs to Change

Former OSHA official shares his view for the present and future of workplace safety enforcement.

Richard Fairfax
December 21, 2020

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been in business for 50 years. Over the years, many agency programs worked well, some didn’t work out so well, and others worked initially but never grew. One key OSHA program, Enforcement, has had a great deal of influence on workplace safety.

In the 1970s, OSHA was driven by conducting inspections. The more inspections OSHA conducted, the more successful the agency was considered. In the early days, OSHA focused primarily on manufacturing. Most industry in this country was geared towards manufacturing, and there was a much higher percent of unionized employers.  

In the very early days, OSHA compliance officers were able to target and pick where they wanted to inspect. As shocking as it would be today, I can remember arriving in a city and looking up establishments to inspect in a telephone book. OSHA was rightfully challenged on this approach, and a new plan was adopted based on high hazard industries and injury and illness rates. This plan still is in effect today.

Early on, this system was successful, and the process drove OSHA more into construction and into higher risk manufacturing. The focus on injury rates, however, drove many employers to under-report injuries and illnesses.

The scope of industry in the United States has changed. There are fewer union establishments and there is less manufacturing. The service and retail industry has expanded, employees work all different kinds of hours and work shifts, and temporary and contract employees have replaced many full-time employees. Yet, while industry has changed and changed significantly, OSHA has not kept pace. The early enforcement model, while successful early on, should be reevaluated. As with all things safety-related, we must strive for continuous improvement. 

OSHA should consider adopting a new model in order to be successful. Currently, most employers except those in the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) or Safety and Health Achievement and Recognition Program (SHARP) are treated the same in regard to agency enforcement. U.S. employers could be split into three basic attitudes towards workplace health and safety:

  • The best of the best. These are your VPP or SHARP employers or employers that would strive for a safe workplace regardless of OSHA. Unfortunately, this group is relatively small when compared to all of the businesses in the United States.
  • The worst of the worst. These are employers that continue to have serious and fatal incidents, work around the OSHA requirements and are primarily focused on increased productivity. Fortunately, this group is also relatively small.
  • The middle group is by far the largest group. These are establishments that want to maintain a safe and healthy workplace, but lack the resources or knowledge to do so. 

A new OSHA enforcement model could be based on these three key groups and include a stronger balance with OSHA’s cooperative programs. For the best of the best, OSHA may not need to conduct scheduled enforcement, because resources are limited. For the worst performers, OSHA could concentrate and direct its limited resources on these organizations, focusing on risk for serious injury/illness and/or death. These establishments need to see OSHA frequently. For the middle group, OSHA could direct a strong cooperative program approach using mentors from SHARP and VPP sites, the OSHA free consultation service and directed compliance assistant from OSHA (perhaps a revitalized Maine 200 program). Resources are tight, and OSHA should direct enforcement to where it is most needed, while providing assistance and guidance to other employers.

Every employee deserves a safe place to work, and OSHA remains a critical partner to supporting workplace safety across our industries. The agency has accomplished a great deal over the last 50 years, and I look forward to seeing how the focus on workplace safety expands in the years ahead.

Richard Fairfax

Richard Fairfax is a subject matter expert and principal consultant for NSC. Prior to that, he was director of enforcement programs and deputy assistant secretary for OSHA.

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