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Updated OSHA guidelines praised for tackling modern safety concerns

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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s recently released safety and health program management guidelines do a good job in addressing the safety challenges of the modern workplace and will go a long way toward helping small to mid-size employers implement effective programs, observers say.

OSHA released its long-awaited update to its 1989 guidelines on Oct. 18, with a key change being the addition of a section specifically addressing multi-employer workplaces. The guidelines now include seven core elements — up from six — for a safety and health program: management leadership, worker participation, hazard identification and assessment, hazard prevention and control, education and training, program evaluation and improvement, and communication and coordination for host employers, contractors and staffing agencies.

“That’s really been an emphasis area for OSHA in recent years with its temporary worker initiative,” said John Eliszewski, a certified safety professional and technical safety specialist with W. W. Grainger Inc. in Janesville, Wisconsin. “I think temporary workers are sometimes forgotten in these safety and health programs.” 

The guidelines are most relevant to small to mid-size employers that may not have dedicated health and safety professionals — with untrained human resources staffers often tasked with the responsibility — or systems, experts say. Larger employers generally have dedicated safety staffers and sophisticated systems based on standards published by the American National Standards Institute, International Organization for Standardization and similar organizations, they say. 

“They don’t have the training and they don’t have the resources,” Mr. Eliszewski said of many small to mid-size employers. “This is an awesome tool for them to begin to either start or improve their safety and health programs. It walks them through each of the core elements and gives them a checklist. It’s kind of like a roadmap for them.” 
“For the audience that will find the guidelines most useful, I think they did a pretty good job,” American Society of Safety Engineers President Thomas Cecich said, particularly of the way the agency packaged the information into a simpler format that could be understood even by employees without a safety background.

While there was “nothing revolutionary” in the updated guidelines, Mr. Cecich praised OSHA for including provisions related to employee incentive programs, leading indicators and prevention by design — topics that have evolved since or did not exist when the 1989 guidelines were published. 

In the hazard prevention and control section, for example, OSHA advises employers to select equipment, machinery and materials that are inherently safer based on the application of “prevention through design” principles whenever possible.
 
In the worker participation section, OSHA warned employers against programs or initiatives that could suppress participation, including those in which reporting of a health or safety incident or concern could jeopardize the awarding of incentive-based prizes, rewards or bonuses.

“Incentive programs such as point systems, awards and prizes should be designed in a manner that does not discourage injury and illness reporting; otherwise, hazards may remain undetected,” the agency said in its guidelines. 

Mr. Cecich encouraged OSHA not to wait too long to update the guidelines again, given the constant evolution of best practices in the safety and health field. 

“Five years is not a bad idea,” he said.