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Published: October, 2009; Vol 6, Num 5


Safety Culture Top OSHA’s Agenda?

[This perspective is offered by the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division to spark discussion of ways to transform the nation’s lagging safety culture. We’re interested in your response. Contact us at]

Every day, on average, 13 Americans are killed at work. Thousands more are injured, and a very large but uncertain number endure exposures that will eventually result in serious illness, disability or death. Workplace casualties exceed those of the worst years of the war in Iraq, yet they are hardly acknowledged by the nation’s media. 

That our culture seems so resigned to workplace tragedy is hardly surprising. Until the labor movement developed strength in the 20th century, injured workers had little alternative but to “suck it up” and get back to work.

Unionized workers demanded more attention to safety and health, and arguably, the 1970 creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was the institutional result. Relying on its three-legged foundation – standards, enforcement and outreach – OSHA has made some progress. However, the agency’s impact is not nearly far-reaching or dramatic enough.  Even with present funding, more is necessary and possible.

From the perspective of the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America, OSHA can improve significantly by embracing two new initiatives.

The first may seem inspired by our affiliation with LIUNA – and it is – but it is also rooted in our knowledge of what actually makes change possible. OSHA should push employers to get workers actively involved in making their jobsites safer and healthier.

After management’s commitment, nothing is as important to improving safety on the job as worker participation. No one knows a job like the person who performs it, and no one has a greater interest in doing it safely.

One way OSHA might promote this collaboration is through the adoption of some kind of enforceable employee participation requirement, perhaps as part of an overall safety and health program standard. But a purely regulatory approach would miss the point. Genuine collaboration is not forced.

This brings us to our second recommendation for change at OSHA: the agency should aim to transform the nation’s safety culture. It should combat resignation and defeatism. It should reject the notion that death on the job is a fact of life. It should assert clearly that injuries, illness and death can be prevented; that every worker deserves to come home each day alive and uninjured.

The time is ripe for OSHA to finally adopt the long-standing LHSFNA proposal for an annual Fatality Free Work Week campaign. Could the nation go a week with no deaths on the job and save almost 100 lives? Perhaps not with its first try, but if OSHA examined each of the week’s casualties to find out why, it could engage the society in a discussion about workplace risks and potential solutions. Each year, as a nation, we could try to do better.

That’s the kind of transformative leadership the nation needs from OSHA.