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OSHA Enforcement Chief Says Voluntary-Improvement Recognition Under High Scrutiny

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Richard Fairfax
Richard E. Fairfax, deputy assistant U.S. labor secretary.

Staff Writer |

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is “struggling” with incentive programs that recognize employers for exemplary efforts in preventing workplace injuries and illnesses, Richard E. Fairfax, deputy assistant U.S. labor secretary, told an audience of Textile Rental Services Association (TRSA) members on Tuesday.

Fairfax, speaking to TRSA’s Leadership & Legislative Conference, said limited resources have prevented OSHA from expanding these efforts after they grew significantly in recent years, particularly during President George W. Bush’s administration.

In more recent years, OSHA has concentrated on evaluating their effectiveness. “I think the world of the program,” Fairfax says of the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), but he indicated that such endeavors might need better quality control.

The VPP, Safety & Health Achievement and Recognition Program (SHARP) and other honors awarded to employers, including many in the textile service industry, are under evaluation by an OSHA team Fairfax appointed last summer. “I told them to take as long as they want, to do a top-to-bottom review,” he says.

In the meantime, he urged employers to take advantage of other compliance assistance programs, such as the free OSHA consultation service for companies with 250 workers or less. Agency personnel who visit a business and find violations don’t notify the federal office of these unless the location’s management refuses to fix them. This program saw a budget increase in 2011, Fairfax notes. Each OSHA area office employs a compliance assistance specialist who performs these inspections.

“Our senior and best compliance officers have moved into those positions,” he explains. “They’re not allowed to do anything in enforcement.” They exist for training and outreach and usually “all it takes is a phone call to the office” to involve them in a voluntary compliance effort.

Fairfax also pointed out that the agency hopes to increase its use of private-sector safety pros to help with other employers’ preventive efforts. In this special government employee (SGE) program, such an individual receives three days of free OSHA training, and then participates annually as a member of an OSHA team evaluating other companies’ safety procedures. The agency wants to increase the number of SGEs who can help permanent OSHA staff work with employers in preventive efforts.

Fairfax’s presentation included numerous statistics on the agency’s enforcement activities in 2011, such as a leveling of inspection totals from the prior year (down about 300 to 40,600) and a 6,000 decline in violations to 91,000. The textile services business had no willful or repeat violations, a rarity among industries, Fairfax says.

Those findings are consistent with TRSA’s SafeTRSA education and benchmarking program, which has logged results of improved safety practices among member companies during the past five years:

  • 42% reduction in total recordable injuries and illnesses rate (TRIR)
  • One-third reduction in DART Rate (days away from work, restrictions or transfers)
  • Most recent annual improvement of 5% in TRIR and 2.5% in DART rate

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