A few years ago, a client hired me to conduct mock OSHA inspections at four of their sites in four different states. The corporate safety director wanted to accompany me so he met me at each location and walked with me during the walk-through. Occasionally, I might indicate something as being a hazard and he would challenge me saying that it was still OSHA compliant so OSHA could not cite the finding.

Let me make something clear: the goal of management, particularly the safety manager, should be employee protection and not OSHA compliance.

When I teach classes, there are three things I often share regarding OSHA standards:

  1. Full OSHA compliance is not possible.
  2. OSHA compliance is no guarantee of a safe workplace.
  3. OSHA standards are only the foundation

First: Full OSHA compliance is not possible. I feel comfortable saying there has never been an employer in this country to achieve full compliance with all enforceable standards. Just because you didn’t get any citations during your last OSHA visit doesn’t mean your facility is in full compliance or even hazard-free. When you begin to examine all the consensus standards out there along with those which were incorporated by reference (see 29 CFR 1910.6), it becomes readily apparent that this is a true statement.

Second: Compliance is no guarantee of a safe workplace. Even if full compliance were possible there could still be unsafe conditions in the work environment which could cause serious injury or death. What about the general duty clause? That’s a good question. Keep in mind that the general duty clause cannot be applied where a standard exists. Take, for example, scaffolding. The scaffold standard at 1910.28(b)(15), does not require fall protection for scaffolds no more than 10 feet above the ground or floor. An employee can be on a scaffold 10 feet above the ground without rails or other forms of fall protection and be OSHA compliant. That same worker can fall to his death from that 10 foot scaffold and there is still no violation. And because there is a standard, general duty cannot be used to require the installation of rails. Compliance does not always equate to safety. So, if someone says, “But is it an OSHA violation?” the proper response is, “Who cares? Protect your workers!”

Third: Finally, always remember that OSHA standards are merely the foundation to an effective means of worker protection. In many instances, standards compliance alone will not provide adequate protection. For that reason, employers should focus on employee protection rather than OSHA compliance. Instead of OSHA violations (which should still be identified and corrected) look for ways an employee could be injured. The OSHA standards are a good starting point. Take the standards OSHA has provided and build on them to improve worker protection.

Practice hazard recognition. If you eliminate or control hazards then OSHA compliance will generally take care of itself.