Lessons in EHS History: OSHA’s Origins and 2014 Regulatory Outlook

As we toast to a Happy New Year, many of us will turn our thoughts to our resolutions for 2014. Typically the resolutions that most people make are related to personal goals: workout more frequently or spend more time with family, for example. But what kinds of resolutions might you make in your workplace? After all, estimates show that the average full-time American employee spends anywhere from 1,700 to 2,000+ hours at work each year.

You may want to look at OSHA’s “resolutions” for the upcoming year, to help guide your own workplace priorities. Not too long ago OSHA released its Fall 2013 regulatory agenda, which details the agency’s plans for new and revised regulations. In the words of the agency itself, “It is vital for an organization to know its past in order to successfully move itself forward into the future.” Let’s take a look at OSHA’s past, in order to better understand its current priorities.

The Origins of OSHA

A worker extracting alumina from clay in 1947, prior to OSHA’s creation. Clays frequently contain large amounts of free silica, and chronic inhalation can cause silicosis. Note the lack of PPE.

At the time OSHA was founded there were approximately 14,000 people who died at work every year. Additionally, 2.5 million job-related disabilities and 300,000 new cases of job-related illnesses were being reported annually. OSHA’s creation was the result of much debate over the extent to which the federal government should set and enforce workplace safety and health standards. This debate began during the Johnson administration, and culminated in the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in December 1970.

The OSH Act became effective on April 28, 1971, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created to ensure its successful implementation. The initial standards package was published in the Federal Register on May 29, 1971. OSHA did not have to reinvent the wheel. As directed by Congress, this initial package included many existing federal standards as well as national consensus standards, such as parts of the National Electric Code (NEC) of 1970 and several American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards. In other words, OSHA’s first set of standards was largely an amalgamation of what were considered the best existing standards of the time. Employers were given a 90-day grace period to familiarize themselves with the standards and become compliant.

What were OSHA’s priorities, or “resolutions,” back in the beginning? The first five industries targeted for safety hazards were marine cargo handling, roofing and sheet metal work, meat and meat products, miscellaneous transportation equipment, and lumber and wood products. The newly established agency was also especially concerned with five specific health hazards: asbestos, lead, silica (interestingly, a hot topic in recent months as well), carbon monoxide, and cotton dust.

Fast Forward to the Present

Today, OSHA is 42 years old. In the time since its inception, much has been accomplished. On its 40th birthday, OSHA announced that workplaces fatalities had been reduced by approximately 65 percent, while reporting occupational injury and illness rates had decreased by about 67 percent. These are huge improvements, especially considering that during this time the U.S. workforce had nearly doubled.

OSHA continues to work tirelessly with industry experts to develop new standards and improve current ones in order to increase workplace health and safety throughout the country. Its regulatory agenda for the upcoming year provides a road map for changes we can expect to see in the near future. It’s likely that in the upcoming year we’ll hear quite a bit about the ones below:

Process Safety Management and Prevention of Major Chemical Accidents
Prerule Stage
On August 1, 2013, President Obama signed Executive Order 13650, Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security. This Executive Order required OSHA to publish an RFI requesting assistance in identifying issues related to its PSM standard – submissions are due on March 10, 2014.

 

Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses
Proposed Rule Stage
To enable more direct, efficient and timely collection of data, OSHA has proposed changes to its current system for reporting occupational injuries and illnesses. The new recordkeeping regulations would require employers to electronically submit the information they are already required to keep under Part 1904. OSHA plans to eventually post the data online, encouraged by President Obama’s Open Government Initiative. The comment period ends on February 6, 2014.

 

Confined Spaces in Construction
Final Rule Stage
A 1993 rule protects employees who enter confined spaces in general industry work (29 CFR 1910.146) but construction worksites were deemed to have unique characteristics and the rule was not extended to them. OSHA estimates that the new construction standards will reduce the number of fatalities and injuries involving confined spaces by 90%. The final rule is scheduled for February 2014.

 

The Moral of the Story

OSHA’s priorities are likely to have a significant ripple effect throughout the entire United States workforce, and those who wish to stay ahead in the game would be smart to take their cues from those in charge of the playbook.

Implementing a well-defined Management of Change system can help companies meet OSHA’s PSM requirements, while using Injury Reporting software makes electronic submission to OSHA a breeze.

For those interested in learning more about OSHA’s history, the agency published a very informative document entitled “Reflections on OSHA’s History” in January 2009.

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