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This kid, with aspirations for the presidency, sits behind a desk in a replica of the Oval Office. Photo: Jinx! via Flickr.

If I Were President!

Now that we know that dreaming of becoming President of the United States of America is even less crazy than it once seemed, we’ve probably rethought about the changes we would make if we were taking the oath in January rather than Donald Trump.  When it comes to the health and safety of the U.S. workforce I’ve asked myself “What kind of shape are we in and what changes would I make as president?”  Do we need sweeping reform, minor tweaks, or no changes at all?  Is it worth spending billions of dollars a year to prevent just 4,000 workplace fatalities in a sea of 120 million workers?  How about trying to reduce the nearly 3 million workplace injuries and illnesses?  Should OSHA have a budget ten times what they currently have to require every employer get to “zero”?

You would think that with life at stake, for some of us a real daily threat, that the safety proposition would hold greater importance than it does for some businesses.  However, unlike many permitted and highly regulated activities, like environmental protection, safety and health laws establish just minimal employer requirements.  You don’t need a required permit or a financial audit to deliver safety in the workplace.  Safety is a point-of-operation undertaking with each workplace implementing it as they see fit.  The employer gets to decide for the most part who, how much, and when an employee’s health and safety wellbeing is accounted for.  Is a safe workplace a rite or a privilege?

If I were president taking office in a few weeks I would conclude the following about the current safety condition of our workforce:

  • The likelihood of achieving zero workplace fatalities in the U.S. is nearly impossible. In fact, “only” 4,000 fatalities annually is rather remarkable considering how many work-related vehicle trips are made, electrical wires are handled, and buildings are constructed every day in the U.S. Nevertheless those that have lost a loved one from a workplace fatality would likely advocate for more regulations and more effort.  One loss of life is one too many.
  • Government can only do so much to protect the worker. OSHA, for instance, can’t be everywhere all the time nor should they be. From the employers perspective more regulation is probably too much as new safety rules mean greater costs, lower production, and lower profitability.  Safety has and will forever be a balancing act between applying enough to keep the worker safe versus too much with costs eating into profit margins.
  • Like many things in life compliance follows the path of a bell shaped curve—ten percent on either end and eighty percent in the middle. It’s the really naughty folks in the upper ten percent that get most of the attention and drive what happens to the rest of us.  The eighty percent need some form of nudge to get them going in the right direction and then some continued maintenance.  The final ten percent do what’s asked of them, and then some, to keep their people safe and sound.  They are the model employer when it comes to safety and truly care about the wellbeing of their workers.
  • To get to zero means controlling people, specifically behavior, their risk tolerance, and their decision making process. Trying to get closer to a state of total control we create programs, policies, and procedures; we conduct perception surveys to find out how people think and feel; and we tweak our work environments, beliefs, and values to get to the culture we are looking for.  With people in the mix it is forever an uphill battle against something called human error.  Sadly injuries and fatalities will continue but I believe improvement can be made.  Although workplace fatalities totaled some 14,000 in 1970, the year OSHA was created, we’ve leveled off to nearly about the same number of workplace deaths over the last 25 years (see the graph below).  How do we move the flat line downward in route to zero?
work injuries, fatalities

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016

The adage of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” I believe holds the answer to getting closer to zero.  So, after taking oath as president and assuming control over program budgets I would:

Reallocate funding and program focus of federal and state OSHA programs.  The 2016 biennium budget for federal OSHA shows an allocation of twice as much money to enforcement efforts (about $300 million) than to compliance assistance efforts (about $140 million).  You don’t know what you don’t know and injury prevention starts with getting employers smarter.  I would double down on the effort to work with employers to help them identify their risks and make sure they have a clear understanding of the value proposition that injuries cost money, are bad for business, and in the long run threaten company sustainability.  I would allocate the lion’s share of the budget to the carrot rather than the stick—offering way more resources in compliance assistance.  Improvements in employer safety programs would include building-in elements like workforce engagement, effective messaging, leadership development, performance assessment, accountability, and others.  All of which are scalable and work with small and very large employers.

If all interested parties (stakeholders) have the common goal of getting to the finish line of retirement in one piece injury and fatality reduction is achievable.  Like international politics I’m sure the issue of regulating workplace safety is way more complicated when looking at it from the outside.  However, it is my right to have my opinion and I’m sticking to it.  My name is Dan Hannan, and I approve this message.

Dan Hannan, safety professionalAbout Dan Hannan: Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent  consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions.  Dan can be reached at dhannan@merjent.com.


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