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SEATTLE-While sophisticated employers have become less defensive in their interactions with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency also is setting goals to improve safety and win employers' approval for its professionalism.

Employers that develop compliance strategies stand a better chance of minimizing OSHA inspections, reducing the impact of unwarranted employee complaints and improving workplace safety records, two presenters said at the Sixth Annual Liberty Mutual Risk Management Conference last week in Seattle. OSHA*documents were made available at the session.

Under a five-year plan for 1997-2002, OSHA plans to reduce its focus on penalties and stop treating responsible employers the same as neglectful ones, said Karl A. Jacobson, senior vp for Liberty Mutual's Loss Prevention Department in Boston. Instead, OSHA wants to change workplace culture so that employers and employees get more involved in safety, he said.

"I'm advocating that employers take a proactive, strategic view of working with OSHA and not be hostile," he said. "It wasn't many years ago when OSHA knocked on your door, the strategy was to close the door and tell them to come back with a warrant."

But hostility will only bring further scrutiny, multiple citations and other hard-line measures, agreed Michael Lichtenberger, manager of loss control for BOC Gases in Murray Hill, N.J.

Not everyone is convinced OSHA has turned over a new leaf, however. One audience member said he still sees poorly trained OSHA inspectors who act as if they have personal vendettas.

OSHA still faces internal problems and may have some overzealous regulators in some regions, Mr. Jacobson said. But he cites a long list of specific performance goals the agency has set for itself.

For example, OSHA wants to ensure 75% of employers and workers rate its documents as readable and understandable, he said, and that 80% of employers and employees view its staff as satisfactory in professionalism, competence and knowledge. OSHA also wants to investigate complaints within five working days and resolve 75% of all whistle-blower cases within 90 days, he said.

"I've never seen performance measures like that relative to how OSHA is going to measure itself," Mr. Jacobson said.

A strategic compliance plan also can help prevent unwarranted OSHA inspections, Mr. Lichtenberger said. For example, if an unhappy employee files a complaint, an employer can respond that such a problem is impossible because the company has a policy addressing the issue, making an inspection less likely.

Employers should provide documentation about their workplace policies, he advised. Good employee relations also can help. "If the employee agrees with your response, you can also benefit."

In cases where inspectors are intent on issuing citations, however, he advises negotiating to reduce the severity and number of complaints.