OSHA Amputation Data and Anti-Retaliation Guidelines Highlight Need for Proactive Management

OSHA Amputation Data and Anti-Retaliation Guidelines Highlight Need for Proactive Management

OSHA has just released some startling new data regarding workplace amputation injuries. The agency has also recently published a new set of guidelines for workplace anti-retaliation programs, to help employers comply with its new electronic recordkeeping rule which went into effect on January 1. While seemingly unrelated, these announcements both highlight the importance of establishing a proactive EHS culture in the workplace — one that emphasizes more effective inspection and incident reporting programs.  In addition, these announcements offer employers some insight into OSHA’s enforcement and rulemaking priorities for 2017, and therefore merit careful attention.

Let’s take a look at the latest news from OSHA, and the impact it may have for EHS management.

Alarming Amputation Frequency

Prior to revisions to reporting requirements that went into effect in January 2015, OSHA only required employers to report fatalities and events involving hospitalizations of three or more employees. Since then, the revised regulations have now required employers to report all work-related hospitalizations, as well as any occupational injuries involving loss of an eye or amputation. As a result, OSHA now has access to more detailed and direct data concerning these severe occupational injuries than ever before. This means the agency is better positioned to target its enforcement activities towards high-risk industries and employers, and also to raise greater awareness of severe occupational injury trends among the general public.

OSHA’s recent summary of amputations, compiled from data obtained since 2015, is rather troubling. According to this data, an average of seven amputations have occurred every day during the past two years. More than 90% of these injuries involved fingers, but amputations were also reported for hands, toes, feet and other body parts. In their summary, OSHA offers three specific tips for prevention of amputations based on the incident reports they’ve reviewed:

  • Turn off and lockout power sources: Ensure that machines are de-energized whenever they’re being serviced.
  • Prevent contact: Install machine guards or use other engineering means to prevent hands and other body parts from contacting dangerous parts during operation.
  • Train workers: Ensure that workers are trained in the safe use and maintenance of potentially hazardous equipment, and ensure that those safe practices are followed every day.

It should be noted that all of these “tips” are, in fact, regulatory requirements under OSHA’s lockout/tagout, machine guarding and training standards, and remain among the agency’s 10 most frequently cited violations. The new amputation data issued by OSHA highlights the need for improved identification and correction of amputation hazards, and for employers to revisit the relevant standards to ensure compliance.

New Ant-Retaliation Guidelines

In 2016, OSHA issued a final rule to “Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses” that requires employers covered by the rule to electronically submit information about occupational injuries and illnesses currently recorded on OSHA forms 300, 300A and 301. One aspect of the rule that attracted substantial attention was OSHA’s discussion of anti-retaliation programs and whistleblower protection. Previously OSHA could not act under anti-retaliation provisions in Section 11(c) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act unless an employee filed a complaint directly with OSHA. Under the new final rule, OSHA is now able to cite an employer for violation of anti-retaliation standards even if no employee filed a complaint.

In the 2016 final rule, OSHA outlines its expectations for compliant anti-retaliation programs, and requires employers to avoid policies and programs that discourage reporting of injuries. OSHA provides examples of potentially non-compliant programs, including those with policies that mandate drug testing of all employers whether or not there is a reason to suspect that impairment may have caused the injury. OSHA also raises a red flag against safety incentive programs that reward employees or supervisors for being “injury free,” since such a program would likely discourage injury reporting. These provisions caused significant uncertainty among industry groups, as many employers questioned whether their existing programs were compliant with OSHA’s requirements.

To help address those concerns and provide additional guidance, OSHA has just issued its “Recommended Practices for Anti-Retaliation Programs.” OSHA clarifies that the guidance is “not mandatory for employers, and does not interpret or create legal obligations,” but is “intended to assist employers in creating workplaces that are free of retaliation, including retaliation against employees who engage in activity protected under the 22 whistleblower laws that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces.”

The document defines retaliation as adverse actions taken by an employer against an employee who engages in “protected activity,” such as reporting injuries or workplace hazards. It notes that acts of retaliation are not always obvious, and lists the range of actions that would meet the definition of retaliation as anything from denial of benefits, discipline, reassignment to a less desirable position, reduction of pay or hours and termination, to more subtle actions such as falsely accusing employees of poor performance or ostracizing them in the workplace.

The guidelines also offer strategies for employers to establish a workplace that avoids disincentives to reporting, and enables employees to more easily raise safety and compliance concerns. Here, OSHA stresses that there should be accessible, clearly understood methods for reporting incidents, and for sharing of information about risks at an early stage before an incident can occur. They also reiterate the point made in the 2016 final rule regarding incentive programs, advising employers to “eliminate or restructure formal and informal workplace safety incentive programs that may encourage or allow retaliation or discourage reporting.” These unfavorable incentives include rewarding employees for low injury rates, or tying supervisor compensation and bonuses to reduced numbers of recordable injuries. By contrast, OSHA supports incentive programs that reward employee participation in preventive activities. Examples may include an employee’s number of years of service on a workplace safety team, or preventive metrics such as near miss reporting activity, since these programs would encourage rather than discourage reporting.

Other sections of the guidance document recommend strategies for receiving and responding to reports of retaliation, conducting anti-retaliation training for employers and employees, and setting up effective program oversight. More information about employee rights and whistleblower protection established under OSHA can be found at www.whistleblowers.gov.

 Let VelocityEHS Help

OSHA’s recently published data on workplace amputations, in addition to its new guidelines for anti-retaliation policies demonstrate the agency’s emphasis on risk identification and prevention, and the role that accessible and easy-to-use reporting systems have to play in addressing hazards before incidents occur. A streamlined incident reporting solution that is accessible to all employees would allow the kind of barrier-free and user-friendly incident management program OSHA wants to see, while providing the visibility employers need to better protect their workforce. This is especially true if your incident reporting and management system is integrated with a corrective action management solution that provides the ability to assign and track corrective actions, automatically send escalating notifications for overdue items, and document action resolution. Finally, a robust audit & inspection solution will be indispensable for ensuring that all equipment with amputation hazards have proper machine guarding and lockout/tagout procedures in place, as well as for auditing company policies and programs for alignment with OSHA anti-retaliation requirements. Armed with the right solutions, you’ll be able to build and maintain a proactive EHS culture that is compliant with OSHA standards, and establishes true leadership in workplace safety.