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Safety awareness is key

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WASHINGTON*#151;Employees as well as employers must assume some responsibility for workplace safety, according to an attorney specializing in occupation safety and health.

While the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, spelled out employers' responsibilities, it did not adequately address employees' responsibilities, said David G. Sarvadi, a partner in the Washington law firm Keller and Heckman L.L.P. As a result, employees face no sanctions for failing to follow safety procedures, he said.

Mr. Sarvadi's observation came during a discussion at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington last week on the best ways to implement safety programs at a conference examining the Occupational Safety and Health Administration 35 years after its founding.

"We've got to look harder at the employee," said Scott Mugno, management director-corporate safety, health and fire protection for FedEx Corp. in Memphis, Tenn. Employees need to deal with factors such as obesity that impact health and safety at the workplace, he said.

Instilling a general "culture of safety" is important, said Bobby Jackson, senior vp-national program for the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council. He noted that while "the nation has made considerable progress" in reducing workplace deaths, off-the-job deaths have actually risen, as have off-the job injuries. In 2004, the last year for which statistics are available, about 80 million days of production time were lost due to on-the-job injuries, while 165 million days were lost due to off-the-job injuries, said Mr. Jackson.

"The impact of off-the-job injuries" on employers is now greater than that of on-the-job injuries, he said.

"You don't turn safety on and off" when an employee goes on or off the job, said Mr. Mugno.

But getting workers more involved in safety matters is far from the only change needed to help assure safer workplaces.

"We've got to free OSHA from its own statutory and regulatory handcuffs," said Mr. Mugno. He noted that much has changed since OSHA was established in 1971, and that maybe some regulations should be subject to sunset provisions.

Mr. Sarvadi said that OSHA's approach stressing assistance as well as enforcement, which has been in use for about the past six years, represents an improvement over the more stringent approach taken previously by the agency.

Employers "want clearly defined standards" and then be given adequate time to comply with them, he said.

Employers that are honestly trying to comply are often saddled with penalties, he said.

OSHA needs to set objective standards and work with employers to implement them, he said.

Mr. Jackson said there are two key reasons for having workplace health and safety program. From a social standpoint, "it's the right thing to do," he said. And it's also "a sound investment" for employers, as each dollar devoted to health and safety results in a savings of between $3 and $6, he said.