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Q&A: Thomas Cecich, American Society of Safety Engineers

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Thomas Cecich, president of the Park Ridge, Illinois-based American Society of Safety Engineers, laments the safety research void created by the planned closure of the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, which the Boston-based insurer has called a termination of its peer-reviewed research efforts. He also discussed the need for changes at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to combat a stagnant number of worker fatalities in the United States in an interview with Business Insurance Deputy Editor Gloria Gonzalez. Edited excerpts follow.

Q: What could the Liberty Mutual decision mean in terms of safety research? 

A: They’ve been active in applied safety research for decades. They put out applied research that was designed to help their policyholders reduce injuries and illnesses. No longer having that available, that’s 50, 60, 70 researchers and support staff that are no longer conducting applied research. That’s really the problem. I don’t want to come across as being negative on Liberty Mutual. In fact, I’ve always thought that it speaks very highly of them that they would invest in this and make it available to the public where they can’t gain a specific competitive advantage. They’re doing it to raise safety overall. They should be applauded for the work they’ve done over the years. They have a business to run. They have to make business decisions. From a safety and health community standpoint, it really is a loss to the community. Having it be done by an insurance company, their goal was to take that research and translate into something that’s readily useful and available to the workplace. 

Q: What do you hope to see in terms of other organizations picking up the ball?

A: In terms of how do we fill that void, at this point it’s not really clear. Probably the biggest source of research is (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). NIOSH has a research-to-practice focus that they put together a number of years ago, which certainly is the right idea: taking research and allowing us to make evidence-based decisions in the workplace. We’d like to think there would be more university-based research in safety, but you always have the issue of funding. Right now, it’s not clear how a gap as large as the loss of Liberty Mutual’s applied research will be filled. 

Q: Why did ASSE develop its blueprint for OSHA reform?

A: With this administration, there’s going to be a lot of change. If you look at workplace safety in the United States, not much has changed in several decades in terms of being innovative and creative in how we regulate safety. The United States used to be the thought leader in occupational safety and health in the 1980s and early ’90s. Many of us feel that the thought leadership occurs outside the U.S. now. We think it’s reflected in the fact that the fatality rate in the United States hasn’t changed in 10 years. That crosses several presidential administrations. The Democratic administrations tend to be stronger on enforcement, and Republican administrations tend to be stronger on compliance assistance. The fact is not a whole lot has changed in terms of fatalities. ASSE said with a new administration, we have no idea what’s going to happen, but why not put new ideas out there? The current system isn’t growing, isn’t progressing, isn’t bringing about additional improvement. 

Q: What do you see as the key recommendations in the blueprint?

A: We looked at an idea like third-party auditing that says, “Isn’t there a way we can leverage professional resources to get more safety and health expertise into businesses?” How that works, what it looks like, who pays for it is always a big deal, but we think there at least ought to be an openness to talk about how do we leverage the resources that we have. We talk about in settlement agreements that OSHA enters into with companies, rather than raise the penalties and put that money into the federal treasury, get into a settlement agreement that says an organization is going to spend that amount of money to improve safety — whether it’s to bring in a third party or a part-time safety person — but to be creative and look for ways to improve safety overall and maybe we can impact the plateauing that seems to exist with respect to workplace safety in this country. 

Q: One of the recommendations was for OSHA’s electronic record-keeping rule to be rescinded — what was the thinking on that?

A: ASSE opposed that from the beginning. We think the record-keeping system overall needs to be improved in terms of how accidents are recorded, classified, what’s important. If there’s so much emphasis put on incident and illness rates, we believe, and this comes down to Safety 101, it’s much better to have metrics around leading indicators as opposed to trailing indicators. Many of the injuries and illnesses that get put on an OSHA 300 (form) aren’t serious injuries and illnesses — they just cross a border. Because it’s a regulatory requirement, management focuses on that OSHA rate. Rather than look at what are proactive measures to improve safety, they’re always reacting to a blip that may appear. We think it sends the wrong message. Universally, I think safety professionals tend to think that rule was a bad idea, and some of the things that came along with it such as the drug testing provision. We think that’s too much the government trying to dictate how companies manage safety. 

Editor’s note: The ASSE reform blueprint recommended that OSHA establish a policy on third-party auditing to allow such audits to augment the agency’s inspection and consultation capacity because the agency’s inspections focus primarily on violations of established standards while a third-party auditing system could provide guidance to assist employers with abatement options. ASSE also recommended OSHA adopt a more robust and deliberate policy of directing a cited company’s penalty fees back into safety and health improvements.