Web Exclusive: An interview with OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke

By Plant Engineering Staff October 13, 2006

Safety is a crucial issue on the manufacturing floor. It enhances the quality of work and the quality of life for employees while driving increased productivity , which enhances a manufacturer’s bottom line. The role of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is to make sure all employers provide a safe work environment. It is a goal that uses two diverse approaches %%MDASSML%% enforcement of OSHA standards and regulations and investigations and fines when those standards are not met, and outreach to manufacturers to audit existing safety programs and recommend improvements before enforcement becomes an issue.

Leading those functions now falls to new OSHA administrator Edwin G. Foulke, Jr. From 1990 to 1995, Foulke served on the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, chairing the commission from March 1990 to February 1994. Foulke served on the Workplace Health and Safety Committee for the Society for Human Resource Management from 2000 to 2004, including a two-year term as the committee’s chair. He was also a member of the Health and Safety Subcommittee for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Fire Protection Association. Appointed in 2005 by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate March 15, 2006, Foulke comes into his new role with an understanding of some of the modern issues facing safety in all areas of business.

In an exclusive interview with Plant Engineering, Foulke talks about his goals for OSHA and some of the specific challenges and opportunities that manufacturing faces in the area of safety:

PE: Congratulations on your appointment. What’s been the first order of business for you at OSHA since your nomination was approved by the Senate?

Foulke: Preventing workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities is our number one priority. Enforcement is a critical component, but I want to expand our outreach with all stakeholders working toward the common goal of reducing those injuries, illnesses and fatalities. I want to ensure that we effectively use all of our resources to improve workplace safety and health. Further, I want to ensure that our programs and initiatives are yielding the maximum results for employees and employers alike.

I see OSHA working extremely hard to communicate to everyone—employers and workers—that health and safety in the workplace has positive economic value—fewer injuries and illnesses mean a better quality of life for workers; less work time; higher morale, which translates into greater productivity, reduced workers’ compensation and insurance costs; and finally, the ability to compete in the global marketplace. I want OSHA to be known as “The Resource” that all employers and workers will go to for assistance with their workplace safety and health needs.

PE: OSHA’s approach to safety in manufacturing and in most industries is a combination of enforcement and partnerships. How do you effectively balance those two different strategies? Where is there room for improvement?

Foulke: OSHA employs a balanced, multi-phased approach to workplace safety and health by creating standards; maintaining a strong, fair and effective enforcement program; offering opportunities for education and outreach and participation in cooperative and voluntary programs; and providing compliance assistance. Enforcement plays an essential part in OSHA’s efforts to reduce workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. Through our Site-Specific Targeting and Enhanced Enforcement programs, we send a clear message that OSHA takes its mission seriously. When we find employers who fail to uphold their employee safety and health responsibilities, we deal with them strongly.

On the prevention side of the equation, OSHA provides a wealth of compliance assistance resources to help employers and employees understand and comply with standards and requirements. These resources include the agency’s Web site, QuickCards, fact sheets, booklets, and electronic compliance assistance tools. Industry participants in OSHA’s cooperative programs (such as Alliances, Partnerships, On-site Consultation, and Voluntary Protection Programs) provide valuable, expert input into the agency’s compliance assistance tools so that the final products better reflect industry best practices in addressing workplace hazards.

Businesses can use certified safety and health professionals, as well as the services of insurance carriers, when developing their comprehensive systems; but, we want to encourage employers and employees to contact local OSHA offices for assistance.

Compliance Assistance Specialists are located in every federal OSHA area office. Working in a non-enforcement role, these OSHA professionals provide experience and information about OSHA standards and compliance assistance resources. Local OSHA officials welcome requests from small businesses, trade associations, local unions, and community and faith-based groups.

PE: Every year OSHA releases its listing of the Top 10 Violations. Amazingly, the list is almost constant from year to year. What more can plant personnel do to address these top 10 violations and improve overall safety?

Foulke: When OSHA’s Top 10 list of violations is published each year, the media — particularly the trade press — provides a valuable service by publicizing that information. We also post this information on our Web site and in our twice-monthly newsletter QuickTakes . The information is out there; the question becomes: what can concerned employers and employees do with that information?

I encourage employers to openly discuss the list during weekly safety meetings and devote time and resources to ensure worksites are doing everything possible to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Look to implement special emphasis programs to eliminate these violations, and seek expert assistance through the on-site consultation program or an OSHA compliance assistance specialist.

I also recommend that employers post the Top 10 list on bulletin boards accessible to all employees. The bottom line is that employers and employees need to work together to ensure that the plant is using a comprehensive safety and health system. We believe that system will go a long way to eliminating the Top 10 violations—one at a time.

PE: Safety is often seen as a top-down strategy, but what can and should plant floor personnel do to drive a safer workplace culture?

Foulke: The key word certainly is “culture.” When employers and employees decide to embrace safety and health, there is a fundamental change in thinking. Beyond following procedures and posting notices to “be careful,” employers and employees must make safety and health a central value and a comprehensive component in their daily work life. This is more than a procedural change; it is a cultural change — the culture of the workplace.

To drive a workplace culture of safety and health, employees should let their employers know they are willing to work together to establish and maintain an effective, comprehensive safety and health system in their workplaces—for the safety of employees and the success of the business. Do employers need convincing? Well, we have the facts to prove that prevention works.

When employees operate under a comprehensive safety and health program, incidents of injury and illness go down, insurance costs go down, and workers’ compensation payments go down. At the same time, employee morale goes up, productivity goes up, and competitiveness goes up.

We see proof of this in the superior performance of companies and organizations operating under our Strategic Partnerships, Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP), and Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP). For example, VPP worksites (where comprehensive safety and health management systems have been implemented) generally find their injury rates are 50% lower than their industry average.

PE: Off-the-job safety has become a new point of discussion. How does OSHA support this issue? What more can or should be done to raise awareness of off-the-job safety issues?

Foulke: As the topic of‘off-the-job safety’ related to ‘on-the-job performance’ is discussed across the nation, the Department of Labor and OSHA is monitoring the subject and listening to all sides of the issue. I think it needs additional study and discussion. When I first heard about the issue, I recalla familiar expression: ‘safety begins at home’. In that vein, employers should continue to encourage their employees to think and practice “safety” both on and off the job—whether an employee is driving to and from work, or climbing a ladder at home to clean rain gutters.

PE: Specific to manufacturing, what are the hot-button issues your office is working on today? What should manufacturers expect to see from OSHA in the next couple of years?

Foulke: We are working on an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking for mechanical power presses and hope to have it published in the Federal Register this year. We are also in the process of updating the mechanical power press standard to make it consistent with the most recent consensus standards. In particular, we are looking for ways to make the presence-sensing device initiation a more readily acceptable method of safeguarding mechanical power presses — something we believe is an important safety mechanism on the plant floor.

Our standards directorate is working on a‘slings’ guidance document that will provide guidance to employers in general, and sling manufacturers specifically; we hope to have that published by the end of the year.

On the cooperative programs side of the house, we are currently involved in a recruitment effort to bring more Fortune 500 companies (some of which are in the manufacturing industry) into the VPP family and take safety and health to the next level.