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OSHA's new tack: letting firms design own ways to deal with safety

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), long the bane of many in corporate America for its zealous pursuit of safety in the workplace, is about to undergo a major overhaul.

Reagan administration officials are taking a hard look, not at OSHA's goal of safe working conditions, but at its methods. At the same time, industry is slowly discovering that worker safety and corporate profits are not mutually exclusive. As a result, OSHA and the business world finally seem headed for a compatible relationship after 10 rocky years of the agency's existence.

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In recent years, "OSHA has brought to a new height the adversarial relationship between government and business," charges Mark D. Cowan, the newly appointed deputy assistant secretary of labor. "OSHA has performed as a policeman in the past."

The current inspection system now scatters its fire, often inspecting companies with outstanding safety performances. The agency is looking instead for ways to target the unsafe workplaces. OSHA rules will be thinned down, establishing guidelines for safety instead of governing every nut and bolt in the workplace.

"We're still going to come down hard" on companies with unsafe or unhealthy conditions, Mr. Cowan says. But companies will be given "as much leeway as possible" in designing their own ways to remedy problems.

He says OSHA will begin to assume a stronger role as a safety "consultant" -- a special need of small businesses without the resources to draft their own proforcement," he adds.

If industry is pleased with OSHA's new direction, labor is not. Union leaders say its reprieve this year was bought at a stiff price. They are concerned that under the watchful eye of the the White House, the agency will backtrack further on such emotional issues as cotton dust standards, lead standards, and the labeling of toxic chemicals.

Labor leaders have also locked horns with President Reagan on his suggestion that where possible, companies could provide workers with protective equipment such as earplugs and respirators, instead of installing costly insulation and ventilation systems. That amounts to "engineering the man instead of engineering the workplace," says George Taylor, AFL-CIO director of safety and health.

No one disputes the need for safer workplaces. Aside from crucial humanitarian concerns, on-the-job injuries and fatalities cost companies a whopping $30 billion in 1980, according to National Safety Council estimates. Those funds went to pay "visible costs," including $19 billion in insurance premiums to cover workers' compensation.

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There are also "invisible costs," according to David Bell, chief of economic impact for OSHA. "When a mine caves in, or a grain elevator burns, or an oil tanker explodes," he says, "there are payments to victims, loss of production and equipment, low morale, legal costs, and higher insurance premiums," as well as accident investigation and the hiring and retraining of replacement workers. Most business people sympathize with OSHA's goals. Mr. Bell says. But when a competitor can cut costs by cutting corners on safety, company officials "don't like being placed at a competitive disadvantage," he says.

For large companies with well developed safety programs, much of the agency's requirements are costly, complex, or inapplicable. "It's like a driver's manual which tells you every specific detail for how to drive from Boston to Baltimore, " explains Ned K. Walters, corporate safety manager for the Du Pont Company. "You'd never get there."

Mr. Walters says some problems, such as hazardous-waste disposal, require strict procedures. "I realize not every hazard can be attacked by saying, 'Be safe.'" But he says OSHA's time would be better spent on targeted inspections of companies with poor safety records.

Problems with OSHA aside, companies -- especially large ones -- are finding that safety not only makes good business sense, it makes good dollars and cents. Safety managers bristle at the suggestion of safety-for-profit. "We don't work on a cost-benefit equation," Walters says. "You can't put a dollar figure on safety."

But there's no denying that a good safety program creates a good company reputation.Du Pont is known throughout industry for having practically inventedm worker safety. The company's on-the-job injury rate in 1979 (the latest available data) was 22 times better than National Safety Council statistics for the chemical industry as a whole, and 67 times better than all industry.And safety can actually turn a profit, as Du Pont has discovered. The company's Applied Technology Group markets its safety "technology" to other companies, large and small, pocketing millions of dollars a year.

With or without OSHA, "there will be continuing improvement on the part of industry," says Dr. Allan Cudworth, of Liberty Mutual Insurance Company.But he stresses the need for better safety education.

"Many problems occur because an operation wasn't set up with safety in mind in the first place. We need to educate our engineers, designers, and managers to the fact that it's less expensive to do something safely the first time than to correct it later."

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