Although Maryland workplaces, on average, have among the top safety records in the nation, the state's safety regulatory agency is one of the most overwhelmed. The 43 Maryland Occupational Safety and Health inspectors can visit only a tiny percentage of the state's more than 70,000 work sites. But controversy has erupted over MOSH's most recent effort to address the problem. Union officials say the state may endanger workers if MOSH adopts a 2-year-old federal experiment in which safety agencies offer exemptions from surprise inspections to companies with approved safety programs.
How important were the surprise inspections to making workplaces safe? Will the plan to allow some safety-conscious employers to inspect themselves reduce accidents? Or are safety officials sacrificing workers' safety in favor of increasingly powerful business interests?
Former Director, Occupational Safety and Health Administration
The concept is pretty good, but there are some potential problems with it.
It makes a lot of sense to figure out who the good guys are and give them a break. As a practical matter, if an employer has a good safety record, they are not likely to get inspected anyway. And the agencies will still inspect if there are complaints, so you are not giving up that much.
But surprise inspections are very important. They are strong motivators for businesses to comply. If you know you are going to be nailed the first time an inspector shows up, you are
more likely to be in compliance.
Now, as a lawyer in private practice working for employers, I know that even the best guys need a little motivation.
President, United Paperworkers International Local 9 and pipefitter, S.D. Warren plant, Skowhegan, Maine
We've had a cooperative inspection program for 1 1/2 years. It has been good. Accidents are down about 30 percent.
People were skeptical in the beginning. They thought it was just another program. But it has been a real successful program because the company and the union have been aggressively finding violations and getting them corrected.
We've trained 60 people (out of a workforce of 1,000) to be inspectors, and we have about 10 people who are full-time safety inspectors. The company hasn't fixed all the violations yet because there were so many of them. They had to ask for a year's extension. Before they are finished, they'll end up spending $7 million to $10 million. But their workers' compensation rates are down.
The real test will be to see if the OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) continues to follow the program. You need to have that hammer of an inspection to force the company into it.
I have some concerns about setting up programs in different states. It won't be as effective if there is no enforcement there. In Maine, OSHA is a powerful group. In other states, they might not have the political backing to do inspections.
Associate Professor of occupational health and safety University Oregon
This is a thorny issue. There are employers who feel like they are trying to do the right thing. They get caught in a dragnet and feel like they've been wronged. And that is a legitimate position. Why can't we have OSHA inspectors who help as well as fine?
There are some OSHA regulations that have a direct impact on accidents and injuries and lots that don't.
I do agree you have to focus on the bad actors. But I also know that when you rely on companies' voluntary compliance, it is not always very effective.
Studies suggest that there is a correlation between declining injury rates and safety inspections that have resulted in penalties. Companies that were inspected and had penalties saw significant reductions in their injury rates.
L President, National Safe Workplace Institute Charlotte, N.C.
Right now there is a slaughter of safety professionals throughout industry. Senior corporate executives have made a determination that we are entering a period of deregulation. They see the Republican Congress cutting budgets for regulatory agencies and feel they can back off. That's why OSHA needs to be realistic and look for more creative ways to get things done.
So, all things being equal, I'm for it. I'll tell you why: There ain't a such thing as a surprise inspection. Realistically, if you are a company and want to obstruct OSHA, you can obstruct them.
Self-certification is a great idea, but if you find an industrial hygienist certified somebody who is putting people at risk, there ought to be tougher criminal penalties. Safety is a serious issue. But we don't hear a clear discussion of these issues. It just looks like a fight between labor and business. But people don't go to work to die or get sick.