Ergonomics Violations Will Be Enforced Under General Duty Clause

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will step up the enforcement of ergonomics hazards under the OSH Act’s general duty clause, OSHA Administrator David Michaels said April 7.Michaels’s comment during a web chat was made as part of a public outreach effort for developing the Labor Department’s six-year strategic plan. The plan will take effect by Sept. 30 and will run until October 2016. 

According to a draft version of the department’s plan, OSHA’s overall mission is to “ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.” 

“Until recently, enforcement around ergonomic hazards languished,” Michaels said during the chat. “We recognize that thousands of workers annually suffer from musculoskeletal conditions associated with ergonomic hazards, and OSHA must do more. OSHA’s field staff will be looking for ergonomic hazards in their inspections, and we will be providing them with the support and backup they need to enforce under the general duty clause.” 

Jordan Barab, deputy OSHA administrator, said during the web chat that OSHA is working to make the process of enforcing general duty clause violations “more effective,” although he did not elaborate on ongoing efforts.Barab also said OSHA “will be increasing our enforcement activities addressing ergonomic issues.” 

Permissible Exposure Limits 

The webcast also included a discussion of OSHA regulation of toxic chemicals by setting permissible exposure limits. OSHA has assembled a task force to examine outdated permissible exposure limits, according to Richard Fairfax, deputy OSHA administrator. 

“OSHA recognizes that our permissible exposure limits are outdated,” Fairfax said in response to an anonymous comment that some of the limits “go back to 1968” (43 DLR A-11, 3/8/10). 

Streamlining the Rulemaking Process 

Streamlining of OSHA’s rulemaking process was a third topic of discussion on the webcast. OSHA is working with the Labor Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget to find “ways to streamline the rulemaking process or maximize our resources to save time and effort,” said Dorothy Dougherty, director of OSHA’s Standards and Guidance Directorate. 

For example, Dougherty said, OSHA will “examine different ways in which we can shorten or simplify our [rulemaking] preambles while still meeting our statutory and legal burdens.” 

According to the draft strategic plan, one of the measures OSHA will use to determine whether the plan has succeeded will be the number of “targeted hazards” abated. Targeted hazards, according to the draft, include hearing loss in manufacturing, illnesses in general industry and construction, and workplace amputation hazards. 

To abate the hearing loss and illness in general industry and construction hazards, Fairfax said, OSHA inspectors “will be focusing more on industrial hygiene issues.” 

Barab said measures are being developed to determine how much voice workers have in the workplace. A measure of success in the draft plan is “increase[d] worker and employer awareness of OSHA rights, responsibilities, and programs to improve ‘voice in the workplace.’ ” 

Fee System for Voluntary Program? Barab also said OSHA is considering a range of alternatives to fund the voluntary protection programs (VPP) for employers, including a fee-based system. The Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) promote worksite-based safety and health by having management, labor, and OSHA establish cooperative relationships at workplaces that have implemented a comprehensive safety and health management system. 

“The House Education and Labor Committee has approached us to discuss a fee-based system,” Barab said.“We recognize that [voluntary protection program] companies do an excellent job,” said Steve Witt, director of OSHA’s Cooperative and State Programs Directorate. “OSHA resources need to be focused on employers who don’t understand the importance of protecting their workers, particularly small employers.

President Obama’s 2011 budget request proposes a $3 million funding cut for the program, from $73 million in fiscal 2010 to $70 million in fiscal 2011 (20 DLR AA-4, 2/2/10). 

No compliance assistance specialist positions will be eliminated, according to Kim Locey, director of OSHA’s Directorate of Administrative Programs. 

Witt said “some changes” are being considered to OSHA’s alliance program, which encourages cooperation between the agency and trade groups, although OSHA “will continue to support” the program. 

Other initiatives mentioned during the web chat included reviewing policies employers use to discourage injury reporting, which Michaels said OSHA would “take a hard look at” over the “next few months”; developing a plan to ensure that the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission is not unduly burdened with cases as a result of increased penalties; and revamping OSHA’s inspector training program, which Fairfax said would result in “an extensive, multiyear, developmental program for all new compliance officers.”

By Stephen Lee 

The Labor Department’s draft strategic plan for fiscal years 2010 to 2016 is available at http://www.dol.gov/_sec/stratplan/2010/ppt1/.