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Employer safety culture as important as OSHA compliance

Employer safety culture as important as OSHA compliance

DALLAS — Simply complying with safety regulations isn't sufficient, as standards for the biggest hazards might be outdated or nonexistent, according to an official from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

From a legal viewpoint, complying with OSHA regulations is adequate, said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, who led a session Tuesday at the American Society of Safety Engineers' Safety 2015 Professional Development Conference & Exposition in Dallas.

But injuries and fatalities can occur even if OSHA standards haven't been violated, he said.

“We don't cover all the hazards,” with the most notable example being the citation OSHA issued to SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Inc. in Orlando, Florida, in 2010, after a trainer was killed by a killer whale, Mr. Michaels said.

While OSHA doesn't have a specific standard for orcas, it's no secret that they can be dangerous, Mr. Michaels said, adding, “the name (killer whale) sort of gives it away.”

Employers are expected to protect workers from “obvious hazards,” since there might not be standards in place for some of the biggest hazards, he said.

Meanwhile, many OSHA standards, “especially our chemical exposure standards,” are outdated, he said.

Using penalties as a stick

It's OSHA's job to help employers with dysfunctional safety cultures become compliant, and to help employers with compliant cultures become exemplary, Mr. Michaels said.

One of the ways OSHA does this is through the threat of inspections and civil penalties.

“We know that employers don't like to get penalties,” he said. “We know that when they see in the newspaper we've issued a penalty to another employer, that wakes them up. … We don't want to inspect, we want changes to occur before the next worker is hurt. That's really our objective here.”

According to Mr. Michaels, changes should include implementing near-miss or close-call reporting, and conducting better injury and accident investigations.

When employers say an accident was a worker's fault, an inspection will likely take place, he said, adding that employers need to realize “human error is a consequence, not a cause.”

Without elaborating, Mr. Michaels also said OSHA plans to release new guidelines that will hopefully help employers move beyond compliance and create safety programs or systems of their own.

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