Health and safety in the workplaces–what can OSHA do for you?

By Rebecca
Published July 2021

I used to work as a technician in the performing arts.  I was primarily a scenic artist, but also dabbled in props, scenic carpentry, general stage operations, electrics, and stage management.  After the 2008 recession eliminated my job prospects for (at the time) the foreseeable future, I went to graduate school for health and safety and became an industrial hygienist.  Now I work at a contract development and manufacturing organization that specializes in finding novel ways to get medicines to the right places in people’s bodies as efficiently as possible. 

A lot of times when people first find out that I’m an industrial hygienist, they think my job has something to do with trash or teeth, which it usually does not, and in any case, only in the most peripheral, indirect way1. Once they find out that what I really do is occupational health and safety, the next assumption is that it’s “OSHA2 stuff,” and that I conduct punitive, “gotcha”-type inspections of workplaces to catch people out and fine their pants off for violations of nonsensical regulations governing situations that don’t actually put people at risk. Once they find out that I work for a private employer, and not any kind of government agency, too often the next assumption is that I’m there either as a mole on OSHA’s behalf, OR that I’m there to help the employer figure out ways to thwart OSHA, and cover up or hide situations that could comprise a violation3.

It’s a good thing my self-esteem doesn’t rest on the uninitiated understanding my job.

For the record, what I actually do is try to make my employer the kind of company that would put OSHA out of business if everyone were like it. On a day to day basis, I work to help my company to operate ethically, doing business and creating good products in a way that does not pose a harm to our employees or our community4. It’s really pretty straightforward. When we want to do a thing for business reasons, whether it’s putting in a new manufacturing line, or blending new chemicals together to make something dope, or finding a faster way to package up stuff and send it where it’s going, my overriding assumption is that there is absolutely no reason we can’t do these things without endangering someone, and if we can’t, then we should not be doing that thing. If you’ve figured out how to do something, but not how to do it safely, then your idea is only half done, and your presence is still required at the drawing board.  

That’s the theory. In practice, this looks like doing a lot of analysis of every part of a work process, figuring out what types of hazardous things could happen at each stage, and figuring out ways to prevent those things from occurring. I also spend a lot of time researching regulations and designing programs that will help my company stay in compliance with them and keep employees safe with as little hoop-jumping as possible. It’s interesting, valuable work that allows people to work for a living and support themselves and their families without paying a penalty in bodily integrity for the privilege5.  

And if every employer and their companies would do that, reliably, all the time, every time, there would be no need for an agency like OSHA. But like most regulatory agencies, it exists because we can’t trust people to act ethically all the time. Some people can’t be trusted to act ethically any of the time. And because our country has in some sense a culture based on glorification of hard-working business owners6, this has led to a mindset in some that anything that could possibly thwart a business owner, in any way, is bad. This mindset does not consider that some business owners deserve to be thwarted (and then some). It also is either ignorant of or ignoring the fact that OSHA isn’t really there on behalf of the business owner at all—OSHA is there for employees. OSHA exists to enforce the concept that employees deserve to work in an environment free of recognized hazards, and that the employer is the one who has the power to make this a reality. Let me reiterate this, because it bears repeating:employers are the ones with the power. It is unreasonable to expect an employee to bear the primary responsibility for their safety at work, because so many hazards are outside of what any individual (with no budget or organizational power) can control—think installing guarding on dangerous machinery, setting reasonable work shift hours, or putting in ventilation fans to remove harmful gases and vapors. Things like this are beyond the scope of control of any one employee on their own behalf.  

So OSHA exists to enforce the rights of employees. But what is perhaps less well-known is that a substantial portion of all OSHA efforts are aimed not at the punitive tools of citations and fines, but at assisting employers with their compliance responsibilities. Before you ever have that serious injury or devastating fatality resulting in a badge-toting inspector on your doorstep, before you ever need to fear an employee’s well-meaning relative calling a hotline on their loved one’s behalf, there were SO MANY OPPORTUNITIES to avoid this confrontation before it ever became necessary.  If you are an employer, read on, to learn just some of the ways your tax dollars are working to make your life and your employees’ lives better.  If you are an employee, read on, to find out how your tax dollars are funding resources your employer can use to provide you with a better work environment.

Here are just some of the ways that OSHA can assist employers with attaining and maintaining compliance with regulatory obligations:

  • Compliance Assistance Specialists: these specialists provide outreach (at no cost to employers7) to small businesses and other trade and professional associations, unions, and community groups to provide general information at a broad scale about OSHA’s resources and how to comply with standards. They do seminars, workshops, and speaking engagements, as well as helping to implement and promote OSHA’s other, more specific, assistance programs8.  
  • On-site Consultation Program: this program, provided at no cost to businesses, is completely separate from the inspection/enforcement wing of the agency. It allows business owners to confidentially discover potential hazards at their workplaces, improve extant programs, and potentially qualify for limited-time exemptions from routine OSHA inspections, under the guidance of a skilled occupational health and safety professional. Citations and penalties are not issued during consultations, the enforcement branch is not informed of potential violations witnessed during the consultations, and the business is only obligated to correct serious hazards identified during the visit (this commitment must be made before the consultation occurs). Also, while they would prefer you to let them give you a broad-spectrum consultation about any kind of potential hazard they see, you can also request a targeted one, for a specific problem you’d like advice on. They are trying really hard to get you to obtain their expert advice for free and without penalty. This would be a spectacular service for a small theatre company to take advantage of, and since most inspectors likely have little experience with the arts industry, they’d probably think it was a really fun and interesting opportunity.
  • Outreach Training Program (OSHA 10-hour and 30-hour cards9): These training courses provide, respectively, an overview or an in-depth look at potential workplace health and safety hazards.  
  • MNOSHA WSC: Safety Grant Program | Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (Minnesota-specific):  this program awards funds up to $10,000 to qualifying employers for projects designed to reduce the risk of injury and illness to their workers10.  
  • The Susan Harwood Training Grant Program: This program awards grants to nonprofit organizations on a competitive basis to provide training and education programs for employers and workers on the recognition, avoidance, and prevention of safety and health hazards in their workplaces.
  • A variety of cooperative programs under which businesses can work with the agency to help prevent fatalities, injuries, and illnesses in the workplace
  • Other help and resources: The above are just the tip of the iceberg. The agency also has a plethora of other helpful resources on their website, from fact sheets, to online calculators, to training materials, to program templates, to statistics, to tools which give you cost estimates for various types of injuries/illnesses to illustrate how much money is saved by doing things right, and even a quick start tool that will help you find the resources most relevant to your situation.  

“But Captain Safety Pants,” my critics will object, “even with assistance I still can’t afford the money to put these safety programs in place and keep them going! It just costs too much money!” I hear you.  I know the financial hardships that most arts organizations operate under; I operated under them for years myself. I’ve experienced a wide variety of workplace environments in my time, and understand a lot of the constraints that lead to hair-raising deathtraps unsafe situations. But I also know there are plenty of health and safety practices that can be implemented for no or minimal cost that often simply aren’t–whether because no one knows about them, or because they’re inconvenient, or because they take extra time, etc11

I used to work for a small events business which involved bidding on jobs making scenery or other specialty decor for various clients and their events or productions. Sometimes we were subcontracted by clients who had in turn bid on jobs from other clients further up the food chain. Our company (and some of our clients) won a decent amount of bids by the simple expedient of under-bidding all the other competitors. However, this caused problems down the line repeatedly, when we didn’t have enough money to finish the jobs in a reasonable and sane way, and resulted in stupid things like driving to a distant job site in the middle of the night to avoid the expense of a couple of hotel rooms, or almost dropping a proscenium surround on a respected public official12. “Well,” you will say, “a business that doesn’t charge clients enough to actually do the job right isn’t a very viable business, is it?” And you would be correct. This same logic applies to doing things safely. It needs to be as much a part of the business plan as labor and supplies.

Let’s sum up. If you are an employer, you have an obligation to provide your employees with a workplace free of recognized hazards. If you are an employee, you have the right to work in one. The agency holding employers to account for this responsibility is offering:

  • The use of millions of dollars’ worth of educational resources for free to anyone with internet access.
  • To pay people to come talk to your organization about health and safety in the workplace.
  • To pay a specialist to specifically evaluate your individual business, either for all potential hazards, or a limited targeted few, tell you what you need to do to correct them, keep it all confidential and penalty-free, and possibly give you public recognition for Doing the Right Thing afterwards.
  • The chance to receive thousands of dollars to train your (non-profit) employees on health and safety.
  • The chance to receive up to $10,000 to make targeted improvements to safety infrastructure at your (Minnesota) workplace.
  • Knowledgeable trainers to educate your employees about workplace health and safety.

If employers decline to take advantage of any of these resources (most of which are free, and some of which actually pay money) and don’t put in any other efforts to protect employees, then yes: if and when an inspector shows up at the door, it probably will not go well.

But at that point, who’s really to blame?


Footnotes
  1. I mean, trash all over the place could constitute a workplace hazard, as could things like biting.  Also, custodians, waste management professionals, and all persons associated with the dental trade are entitled to a workplace free of recognized hazards, so there’s that.
  2. (US) Occupational Safety & Health Administration
  3. I’ve definitely heard of this.  I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. But that is not the reality of my current employment, and it’s definitely the antithesis of why I got into this business.
  4. There’s another department, called “Product Stewardship,” whose job it is to make sure we operate without posing harm to our customers.
  5. For now.  Someday I deeply hope to expand that to eliminating the penalty in mental and emotional integrity as well.
  6. The Rise of the Small Business Owner in Progressive Era Culture | American Studies Journal (asjournal.org)
  7. The cost is subsidized by OSHA and, by extension, the Department of Labor–your tax dollars at work!
  8. For Minnesota readers, and other residents of states with an OSHA-approved state program:  the particular program linked here is only for states that use the Federal OSHA program, and they recommend you check out your state-sponsored program to find something similar. The MN Department of Labor & Industry (MNDLI) does, in fact, have a speakers’ bureau, which can provide interested groups/businesses with a knowledgeable speaker on topics associated with workplace health and safety and other compliance areas.
  9. You do have to pay for these, usually.  But sometimes you can apply for a grant to pay to send employees to the training.
  10. I know in the past these were matching funds–you had to put in the same amount as MNSOSHA was putting in.  I don’t know if that’s still the case–I can’t find anywhere on their informational materials where it says that now.  Maybe you no longer have to match!
  11.  I’m looking at you, Genie-lift outrigger defeaters.
  12. That was before I worked there.  I had no part of this project in any way; I just heard about it from other employees long after the fact–but it shows that the practices, at this organization and the others they were sub-contracted through, had not improved over time. This was exactly the kind of thing their regular modus operandi would result in. They went out of business in 2009, during the recession.

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