Expert Predicts OSHA to Focus on Fatality Reduction, Health Initiatives Under Biden

The number of fatal workplace injuries has remained relatively flat for years, while the number of recordable workplace injuries and illnesses has decreased slightly.

A more concerted effort to reduce fatalities and an increased focus on the “health” element in OSHA’s mandate are two directions we can expect the agency to take under its new acting head, Jim Frederick.

These were two of many predictions put forth by longtime health and safety leader Jim Thornton during a recent American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) webinar that looked at what to expect from OSHA under the new Joe Biden administration.

Frederick was announced as the new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health in January. He previously served as assistant director and principal investigator during a 25-year run with the Health, Safety and Environment Department of the United Steelworkers Union, until he left in 2019. Meanwhile, OSHA’s top position, the Assistant Secretary, remains vacant, as it has since the last days of the Barak Obama administration, when David Michaels left the Senate-appointed role.

“I think [Frederick] believes that maybe the health aspect has been undervalued in terms of the agency’s agenda. So I think he intends to beef up in that arena,” said Thornton, who is chair of the ASSP’s Government Affairs Committee and the former Director of EH&S at shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries.

Workplace Fatality Numbers

This “beefing up” could take numerous forms, including new standards and training initiatives, with messaging around COVID-19 playing a strong role in any undertaking.

The expected focus on fatalities will come about, Thornton said, due to a lack of decline in their numbers.

“If you look at the OSHA numbers, the total case rate or total incident rate is pretty flat. There’s even been a very slight decrease. But the number of fatalities is not decreasing at a similar rate. In fact, it is increasing slightly. I know Jim is concerned about this.”

This direction could be pushed forward through advisory committees or special interest groups working on the issue. “I know there’s an interest in reducing fatalities, and there should be. We have not done a good job at that.”

To put hard numbers to Thornton’s assertions, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that private industry employers reported 2.8 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2019, which was unchanged from 2018. Also, the incidence rate of total recordable cases (TRC) in private industry in 2019 was 2.8 cases per 100 full-time equivalent workers, which was the rate reported in 2018 and 2017.

Meanwhile, there were 5,333 fatal work injuries recorded in the United States in 2019, a two-percent increase from the 5,250 in 2018. In 2017, the total figure was 5,147.

A Bigger OSHA Tent

Other initiatives Thornton expects Frederick to begin emphasizing are an increased utilization of OSHA advisory committees, including ACCSH, the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health, NCOSH, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health and MACOSH, the Maritime Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, as well as a broadening of voices contributing to OSHA’s strategy and actions.

“Jim thinks that the OSHA tent ought to be a big tent and [include] the best and the brightest from labor management and academia, and then bring in small, medium and large employersand try to do the right things.”

Given Frederick’s background as an industrial hygienist, Thornton expects OSHA to make a concerted effort to tackle the difficult issue of permissible exposure limits (PELs), which the new assistant secretary has referred to as “embarrassing.”

“What he meant by that is, because they are antiquated by the time they are published, they are almost out of date,” Thornton said. “It’s very difficult to get a change in PELs. It’s painfully slow to get those things going, so I look for some work being done on expediting them without compromising them.”

Stressing Heat Stress

Other moves we can expect to see from the agency under the Biden administration, according to Thornton, include:

  • An increase in the number of inspections, which fell from an annual average of 38,000 during the Obama administration to about 32,000 under Trump. This will rise to the level that the new OSHA leadership feels is required, Thornton said. This will be accompanied by a corresponding increase in the number of certified safety and health officials (CSHOs) to carry out the higher number of inspections. Thornton added that we can also expect to see an increase in COVID-19-related inspections under the new administration.
  • An effort to gain consistency between the OSHA HAZCOM standard and the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) in regards to labelling, with the goal of removing any confusion about material handling procedures for workers who deal with chemicals and other hazardous materials.
  • An increased effort to create standards around workplace violence and heat stress. The latter has proven particularly difficult for previous administrations. “A lot of people feel there needs to be a heat stress standard, but it’s so tough to get your arms around it because of the complexity. How do you measure it? How do you enforce it? Nevertheless, it is a real thing, and people are affected by it, so I see a heat stress standard being looked at again.”

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