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Employers need voluntary safety guidelines to better reflect today's workplace

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's plan to modernize its voluntary safety and health program management guidelines is a step in the right direction, but still needs to address realities in today's workplaces, including a higher prevalence of multiemployer worksites, observers say.

The voluntary guidelines were first published in 1989 to help employers establish health and safety management plans at their workplaces, but the agency in November proposed updating them to reflect modern technology and practices.

The proposal, on which public comments are due Feb. 15, 2016, places particular emphasis on identifying hazards and engaging workers who are most knowlegable about workplace dangers, said Bill Perry, OSHA's director of the directorate of standards and guidance in Washington.

“We're really trying to convince employers to take a proactive approach to mitigate workplace hazards,” he said Wednesday. “We really think that these draft guidelines are far more approachable than the guidelines that were issued in 1989.”

The guidelines could include concrete examples of “meaningful” ways to encourage employees to participate and secure the “sincere” support of management, said Rick Ingram, health and safety adviser at BP P.LC. in Goliad, Texas.

“Once you work through these challenges, that's what actually helps you to be successful,” he said of workplace accident mitigation efforts.

Hazard identification and assessment and employee education and training are also core elements of the guidelines that employers are contending with in their safety and health programs, Mr. Ingram said.

“The implementation of these elements is a challenge in the field,” he said.

The proposal also features explicit guidance on communication and coordination at multiemployer worksites — those where host employers, contractors, subcontractors and temporary staffing agencies may all have responsibility for workplace safety and health — which the agency thinks is critical to protecting workers, Mr. Perry said.

“That is one of the most important elements,” Mr. Ingram said. “I've seen this work. We can find effective ways to appropriately hold all the employers accountable at the worksites.”

“OSHA has limited resources, but all of us in the industry should be supporting this and going out and helping” to put the safety guidelines into practice, he said.

Margaret Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO in Washington, called the guidelines “a solid foundation” and some elements “monumental” in terms of their recognition of the different types of workplaces and hazards that employees deal with today compared with 1989, but she also said they should be stronger.

“I think it is still somewhat rooted in an industrial, fixed-workplace model, so it isn't as accessible as it might be to multiemployers, unions and workers in all the different sectors where we know there are huge problems,” she said. “I do think it's important that the guidelines use language that speaks to those respective employers and those types of workplaces.”