OSHA: Kinder, Gentler?

Jan. 1, 2003
The emphasis is on voluntary versus enforcement. And ergonomics is no longer a dirty word.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and John Henshaw, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, are hard at work changing OSHA’s goals — or, at least, its image.

Now enforcement is a strategy of last resort, after all voluntary efforts have failed. It used to be that standards were there for OSHA inspectors to enforce or else! Now companies and their trade associations have the opportunity to get closer to OSHA by means of partnerships, consultation and Voluntary Protection Programs. OSHA is being positioned as a help rather than a threat.

The Voluntary Protection Program has been around a long time but has been eclipsed by the dust created by the ill-fated ergonomics standard sponsored by OSHA. According to OSHA literature, a VPP is designed to:

• Recognize employers who have successfully developed and implemented effective and comprehensive safety and health management systems;

• Encourage these employers to continuously improve their safety and health management systems;

• Motivate other employers to achieve excellent safety and health results in the same way;

• Establish a relationship between employers, employees and OSHA that is based on cooperation.

According to OSHA’s figures, the Voluntary Protection Program covers nearly 850 worksites in more than 180 industries. As a VPP participant, your company is not scheduled for a regular inspection. But there’s an evaluation of your worksite’s record of injuries and illnesses for the past year; how often the evaluation will take place will depend on your ranking in the Voluntary Protection Program. Of course, all bets are off if you have an employee complaint, a serious accident or a significant chemical release; then you can expect the inspectors to be on your doorstep.

William H. Kincaid, P.E., CSP is a longtime OSHA-watcher. Formerly an OSHA enforcement officer, he is now senior loss consultant for Lockton Insurance Company in St. Louis.

“I think those partnerships like the VPP have a lot of potential and that OSHA is moving in the right direction,” Kincaid says, “It makes good sense for OSHA offices to apply a local approach. Being able to perform those partnerships gives them a little more leeway to back off on the enforcement.”

Partnerships have a downside, too, says Kincaid. “Most of them are hard to get into. You have to have a better-than-average injury rate to get into most of these partnerships. But the local OSHA offices are developing plans so that they can be more of a partner with local industries.”

Kincaid has worked out an approach of his own, “an instance where the industries will give a little bit and the local office will give a little bit. My plan would encourage industries to partner with safety consultants from insurance companies or a local consulting company. This outside person would do an inspection once a year, then OSHA would not inspect that company routinely that year. To fulfill the requirements, that consultant would have to send OSHA a letter that would say, for example, that he’d found six hazards, two of them serious, and that the company corrected all of them. The letter doesn’t say what the hazards were, so it doesn’t leave a paper trail.”

Next step in partnerships

It’s OSHA’s next step up, the Strategic Partnership Program, that gets the most press and draws the most flak. That’s the kind of educational arrangement your industry might develop with OSHA. A good example is the recent agreement OSHA signed to form an alliance with 13 airlines to share their best ergonomics practices for handling checked baggage from passengers. This group will do the usual things: hold meetings, sponsor a national conference and develop a training module for workers who handle checked baggage.

No sooner had OSHA announced this agreement than it got a blast from the AFL-CIO. “It’s really quite outrageous,” said Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health at the AFL-CIO, in an interview with Occupational Hazards magazine, “They’re reaching out to the airlines to talk about baggage handling, and they never bothered to talk to the unions and workers involved who actually do the work.

“These alliances are just ‘feel-good’ relationships,” she said. “All we see are a bunch of press releases, and I don’t know that there’s anything real behind them.”

That will continue to be the rap against OSHA, especially since the budget was reduced from its 2002 level of $443 million to the $437 million being requested by President Bush.

Everything’s coming up ergonomics

We came close to having an ergonomics standard in 2001 until Congress derailed it with the Congressional Review Act. As well it should have, since that was a one-size-fits-all-industries standard. As Compliance stated in April 2001, “While the standard was too broad, too vague and too bureaucratic, ergonomics has much to offer the workplace. For many activities like lifting, pushing, orderpicking, receiving and shipping, ergonomics is merely a refinement of material handing in plants and warehouses.”

In May 1991, Compliance pointed out: “The ergo standard, on the other hand, was designed to fix every ergonomics problem in every industry. In order to cover all loopholes, the standard would micromanage its way through your company, starting with the president. You couldn’t have complied without adding people and consultants.”

Ergonomics itself was not wholeheartedly accepted by the administration in 1981. In a confirmation hearing, Eugene Scalia, the nominee for Labor Department solicitor, was presented with his previous writings, in which he characterized ergonomics as a “junk science.”

Aftermath of the standard

What happened to ergonomics after the standard was shot down was a mixed bag. On one hand, companies who hired ergonomists as a defensive measure fired them. But some companies saw the safety and cost reduction benefits of ergonomics. As one ergonomist told me, “We had a lot of folks who were energized by the threat; and even when the threat was rescinded, they said, ‘We recognize that this was a value five years ago, but we let it fall off a little bit. Now we’re going to re-invest in it.’ Those are the companies that are a pleasure to work with because they’re interested in the benefits of ergonomics.”

Moving ahead to ergonomics in 2003, Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao has announced the formation of a National Advisory Committee on, of all things, ergonomics. The goals will be the same as for the defunct standard: reducing ergonomics-related injuries in the workplace. But its methodology will be a four-pronged approach that includes:

• Information related to industry- or task-specific guidelines;

• Identifying gaps in existing research on ergonomics in the workplace;

• Outreach and assistance methods to communicate the value of ergonomics;

• Increasing communication among stakeholders.

Currently, ergonomics violations are difficult for enforcement officers to cite because there is no ergonomics standard. William Kincaid imagines a scenario where “a guy with a bad back is doing a hazardous job, and is about to hurt himself, and the OSHA enforcement officer is going to walk right by him and say, ‘Let me see your fire extinguisher inspection.’”

But it is possible to write up lifting hazards, using the existing ergonomics data that’s available, says Kincaid. “Using the NIOSH Lifting Equation and the General Duty Clause, Section 5.a.1, and say, ‘This person is lifting too much.’” The problem with 5.a.1 is that a citation takes too much time, and the OSHA enforcement officer doesn’t want to do that.

“If a company has only so much money and so much time to devote to safety, and they’re going to comply with all those OSHA rules, they won’t improve their injury rates unless they come up with some programs on their own,” observes William Kincaid.

OSHA explains lockout/tagout

OSHA’s Document 3120 is just about all you need to know about lockout/tagout (which, the booklet explains patiently, “refers to specific practices and procedures to safeguard employees from the unexpected energization or startup of machinery and equipment, or the release of energy during service or maintenance activities”). The key words here are designated individual, inspect, verify and warn. Everything goes downhill after that.

OSHA’s standard on lockout/tagout is Control of Hazardous Energy (Lockout/Tagout), CFR 1919.147. Even if you’re in a non-manufacturing industry like warehousing, you still face operations like installing and maintaining equipment.

“The lockout/tagout standard is a reasonable thing,” says William Kincaid, senior loss control consultant with Lockton Insurance Company. “It meshes with machine guarding. A lot of companies don’t have it figured out yet,”

The best approach starts with an energy-control program. You’ll need that for training and inspection, as well as evidence in an OSHA citation, if that becomes necessary. Documentation of the program comes next. According to OSHA 3120, this documentation should include:

• A statement on how to use the procedures;

• Specific procedural steps to shut down, isolate, block and secure machines;

• Specific steps designating the safe placement, removal and transfer of lockout/tagout devices and identifying who has responsibility for the lockout/tagout devices;

• Specific requirements for testing machines to determine and verify the effectiveness of lockout devices, tagout devices and other energy-control measures.

The lockout/tagout standard is an employee-intensive standard, and well it should be. An employee can fudge on lift truck training, but a mistake in lockout/tagout can be costly in terms of losing a limb or a fatality. Preparation, application and verification should become second nature for employees. Same goes for consideration of lockout or tagout devices put in service by other employees.

Document 3120 doesn’t let go of the subject before it explains how you should determine whether a device can be locked out and how to proceed if it can’t, with tagout as a substitute to be approached gingerly. The same attention should be paid to tagout as lockout. That is, tagout should not be used as a cheap, quick-and-dirty substitute for a lockout program.

How much training should be involved with lockout/tagout? For sure, it’s an ongoing thing. A trainer may throw up his hands when a grizzled employee claims, by his longevity alone, that he has mastered the lockout/tagout drill. But he doesn’t work in isolation. Others, even new employees, put their lives in his hands. Especially if he becomes the authorized employee who haphazardly places a lock or tag.

It goes without saying that training is mandated for new employees, new equipment or new procedures. But that’s just the skeleton. There are real-world considerations in the plant like maintenance, shift changes and service by outside contractors. Lockout/tagout dogs a plant manager every hour of the day.

Lockout/tagout goes back a long way as OSHA’s outstanding achievement. The standard has been in effect since 1989, but I doubt whether today’s ergonomics-oriented OSHA employees think much about it.

The revised brochure, OSHA 3120, isn’t OSHA’s last word on the subject. For example, that brochure tells you how to log onto such Web-based tools as The Lockout/Tagout Interactive Training Program and the Lockout/Tagout Plus Expert Adviser, which is an interactive, expert diagnostic software package that will help you understand and apply OSHA standards that protect workers from the release of hazardous energy.

Lockout/tagout is an old standard, and fairly complicated. With all the industry-specific guidelines being issued by OSHA, it doesn’t look like much work will be put into an equipment-centered, enforcement-oriented standard in the near future

PITOT — a new standard for an old idea

The Powered Industrial Truck Operator Training (PITOT) standard makes a strong case for enforcement. It’s about education, but it’s not voluntary.

See, PITOT (CFR 1910.178) started out in 1971 as an adaptation of a 1919 ANSI standard for lift trucks. So it’s been around awhile. The voluntary aspect of the standard could be found in the paragraph that reads: “Only trained and authorized operators shall be permitted to operate a powered industrial truck. Methods shall be devised to train operators in the safe operation of powered industrial trucks.”

Companies found that there were big loopholes in that statement. And OSHA inspectors learned quickly that it was next to impossible to cite a company for not training its operators — and make it stick.

The new version of PITOT mandates three specific things:

• Operators must be trained on the type of truck, or trucks, they operate on the job. A narrow-aisle lift truck operator gets trained on that kind of truck.

• Operators must be trained in the environments in which they work. If you have an operator who loads trailers at the dock, you have to provide training for that operation.

• Operators shall be evaluated by a qualified person or persons. That is, an operator must demonstrate competency on the type of vehicle he usually operates and in the environment in which he usually works.

This version of PITOT took effect on December 1, 1999. As OSHA standards go, that was just yesterday. Two things have happened since then:

• The big companies with safety departments in place have long gone past the requirements of PITOT. For a variety of reasons — including a concern for human life, control of the lift truck fleet, and avoiding the cost of product damage — they have invested in driver training programs.

Smaller companies have been less likely to comply. For example, a Web site for the Material Handling Equipment Distributors of America cited these examples:

• Lift truck operator tipped over the vehicle after lifting its mast to the upper level. The operator fell off and was crushed.

• Workers were injured when attempting to dump two 50-gallon containers of plaster into a compactor, then climbing on the vehicle to finish the job.

• Shopper in a store is struck by lift truck in the aisles.

Clearly, the operators of these vehicles have not been trained on the truck or in the operation. In these cases, education was not enough — enforcement of the standard was required.

The “new” OSHA clearly emphasizes partnerships and training over enforcement. However, in the case of lift truck operators, the history of training indicates that a standard was needed. OSHA’s safety inspectors need a document they can point to when a company is flagrantly endangering its employees’ lives on powered industrial trucks.

Updated material handling

It’s all part of an Internet publication from OSHA, Materials Handling and Storing, OSHA 2236. It’s the kind of document that takes some of the we-can-do-it-all edge off an ergonomics program. For example, OSHA 2236 says: “In the area of material handling and storing, ergonomic principles may require controls such as reducing the size or weight of the objects lifted, installing a mechanical lifting aid, or changing the height of a pallet or shelf.”

Not only does the document recognize the existence of material handling equipment such as lift tables in material handling, it also recognizes that “although no approach completely eliminates back injuries from lifting material, you can prevent a substantial number of lifting injuries by implementing an effective ergonomics program.”

Not only does OSHA hop on the bandwagon of material handing in ergonomics, it will provide your new employees some safety tips on behavior around overhead cranes, conveyors and powered industrial trucks. Same applies to aisles and passageways as well as fire safety.

There’s also a section on how employers can make their training programs more effective. And no document from OSHA would be complete without listing all the kinds of help available from that agency. MHM

Regulations To Watch

How you manage people and product

Disabled employees. ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) influences how you retrofit a building for elevators, lighting or other upgrades. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, programs and services provided. Go to: www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm.

Electronic record keeping. The Food and Drug Administration, per 21 CFR Part 11, will accept electronic records and electronic signatures, in lieu of paper, as valid documents for product quality, safety and regulatory compliance. Go to www.fda.gov.

Noise. OSHA 1910.95(b)(1) states when employees are subjected to sound exceeding listed levels, feasible administrative or engineering controls shall be utilized. If such controls fail to reduce sound levels within the levels listed, personal protective equipment shall be provided and used to reduce sound levels to within those levels. Go to www.osha.gov.

Powered Industrial Truck Operator Training. OSHA’s 29 CFR 1910.178(l)) mandates a training program that bases the amount and type of training required on: the operator’s prior knowledge and skill; the types of powered industrial trucks the operator will operate in the workplace; the hazards present in the workplace; and the operator’s demonstrated ability to operate a powered industrial truck safely. Go to www.osha.gov.

Hazardous material handling. OSHA or EPA Training conducted by employers must comply with the hazard communication programs required by OSHA under 29 CFR 1910.120 or EPA under 40 CFR part 311.11. Hazmat employee training shall include general awareness/familiarization training, function-specific training and safety training concerning emergency response information, measures to protect the employee from the hazards associated with hazardous materials, and methods and procedures for avoiding accidents, such as the proper procedures for handling packages containing hazardous material. Go to www.epa.gov.

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