It's a familiar debate: Occupational safety practitioners and unions maintain that OSHA regulations keep U.S. workplaces safe and contribute to fewer injuries, improved productivity and reduced workers' compensation costs. Many manufacturers argue, however, that passing additional safety standards only adds to an onerous and costly regulatory environment in the United States and makes it less competitive in the global economy.

Two Congressional hearings in the last year have focused on this very issue. During an Oct. 5, 2011, House Subcommittee on Workforce Protection hearing, Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Tim Walberg, R-Mich., suggested that federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards are "job-killing" regulations. Months earlier, in February, witnesses at another hearing held by the same House subcommittee criticized OSHA's impact on businesses.

Throughout the criticism, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels insists the U.S. workforce needs regulations to remain safe and competitive.

"Despite concerns about the effect of regulation on American business, there is clear evidence that OSHA's common-sense regulations have made working conditions in this country today far safer than 40 years ago when the agency was created, while at the same time protecting American jobs," Michaels said in a statement following the Feb. 15, 2011, hearing. "OSHA standards don't just prevent worker injuries and illnesses. They also drive technological innovation, making industries more competitive."

A Different Approach

According to Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs for the American Industrial Hygiene Association, which serves occupational health and safety professionals practicing industrial hygiene, OSHA "literally had no standards come out with any meaning whatsoever" in the last three years. Excluding the hazard-communication standard, which OSHA announced as a final rule March 20 to align the agency's current hazcom standard with the Globally Harmonized System, Trippler doesn't expect to see any regulations of significance pass in the near future.

"Despite concerns about the effect of regulation on American business, there is clear evidence that OSHA's common-sense regulations have made working conditions in this country today far safer than 40 years ago when the agency was created, while at the same time protecting American jobs"
-- David Michaels
assistant secretary of labor for
Occupational Safety and Health

"You're always going to hear industry say that regulations are job killing, and you're always going to hear labor say we need more regulations. That doesn't change. What has happened is that OSHA is trying to take a different approach to things," Trippler says. "OSHA has moved into an area of trying to accomplish something other than through the regulatory process. I don't think it's necessarily worked, but I can understand the reasons to try, because the regulatory process takes so long."

OSHA's regulatory agendas often have been described as "ambitious," but ambition has not translated into new standards, which can take many years to promulgate. For example, after the fatal February 2008 Imperial Sugar Co. combustible dust explosion in Port Wentworth, Ga., safety stakeholders urged OSHA to develop a combustible dust standard. While OSHA has added this item to its regulatory agenda, no one expects a standard anytime soon. In fact, Trippler questions whether it would be worth the time and cost to enact a standard that might only impact 1% of the population.

OSHA has responded to this challenge by getting creative -- particularly through its proposed Injury and Illness Prevention Program, or I2P2, a regulation that would compel employers to "find and fix" hazards in the workplace. Trippler says I2P2 exemplifies how Michaels is attempting to address occupational safety concerns in an innovative way rather than attempt to regulate every hazard or safety concern.

"I2P2 is a perfect example of OSHA saying we can't do business the way we used to do it," Trippler says.