Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Apology Of The Week

Following up on yesterday's Quote of the Week, I'd like to issue the official Confined Space Apology of the Week. Sometimes in order to criticize government agency policies, programs or actions, we use quotes by the people involved -- without necessarily meaning to criticize the people themselves.

You may recall yesterday's "Quote of the Week" went to OSHA Philadelphia spokesperson Kate Dugan who was quoted a explaining that
"Our mission isn't to find a cause for an accident, our mission is to find if there were any violations of safety and health standards."
I worked with Kate when I was at OSHA and always found her to be a dedicated OSHA employee and a staunch advocate of workplace safety and health. She wrote me today to explain that the quote came from a reporter's question about whether OSHA always finds the cause of work-related incidents like the fall that killed Jeffrey Martin. Her answer was that they don't, but they do look for violations of OSHA standards.

Makes some sense in that context. The immediate cause of what made someone fall may remain a mystery, even if the lack of protections are clear.

But the reason her quote (or misquote) was so appealing to the distinguished panel of "Quote of the Week" judges was the essence of truth that it contained. First, the quote might sound to those who don't like the agency, like they don't know what they're doing, but they'll go ahead and cite something, anything anyway.

It's not uncommon to have a major incident, along with injuries, fatalities, etc, and there will always be an OSHA citation, but that citation may have nothing to do with the cause of the incident because the circumstances and evidence don't quite fit into any existing standards because of the way the coverage was defined or some other legal technicality.

A familiar example is the Process Safety Management Standard, an extremely effective regulation designed to prevent explosions and other major incidents in chemical plants and refineries. Unfortunately, it's often hard to use because the amount of chemical involved in an explosion may come in below the threshold amount defined in the standard. So OSHA comes in and cites for faulty extension cords, chemical storage violations or slippery floors-- all real hazars, but maybe having nothing to do with the real cause of the explosion. It's extremely frustrating for workers and for OSHA inspectors.

And then there's the issue of OSHA not being able to look fo rthe more systemic causes of incidents. For example, inspectors may cite for a guard left off a machine that lead to an amputation, but the root cause of the incident (as well as many others incidents and close calls) may be the accelerated production pace and intimidation that leads workers to cut corners.

Those are some of the reasons that we have agencies like the National Transportation Safety Board and the US Chemical Safety Board which were created by Congress to look beyond the regulatory framework into the root causes of airplane or train crashes and chemical plant explosions. They're not bound by Federal Aviation Administration or OSHA regulations. On the other hand, they have no enforcement ability and no way to ensure that their recommendations are enacted.

Finally, as I've written before, after working for a labor union for 16 years and spending much of that time criticizing OSHA, I was pleasantly surprised when I went over there by the intelligence and dedication of most of the career employees I worked with in headquarters and in the field. And the more dedicated they were, the more frustrated with the political or legal barriers to just doing their jobs to make workplaces safer -- jobs that were often made much harder than they needed to be by the political agendas of those in the Assistant Secretary's Office, the Secretary of Labor's office, on Capitol Hill and others who live and work down the street at the White House.

Anyway, this is a rather circuitous way of saying to Kate Dugan and any other career employees I've criticized over the past few years: I'm sorry. But don't take it personally. It's the institution and the politics I'm really going after.

And Kate, you can still have the Confined Space T-Shirt (if such a thing existed).