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OSHA Veteran: Workplace Safety Starts with Setting – and Enforcing – 'Cardinal Rules'

Greg Enright

Jim Stanley knows a thing or two about protecting workers. After all, he’s been investigating and studying workplace health and safety incidents since 1971.

Jim Stanley’s long career in workplace safety and health includes 25 years with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in area office, regional and national leadership roles, including regional administrator for New York, one of the most industrialized regions in the country. He rose to the post of deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA and has spent countless years working for private-sector companies.

With all that experience under his safety belt, Stanley believes creating safe and healthful workplaces comes down to implementing one key strategy.

“The most effective enforcement method a company can implement is to set up cardinal rules — those things in their workplace that, if someone doesn’t do them, where serious injury or death are the result, there will be consequences,” says Stanley. Examples of such violations include: working at a particular height without protection; entering a confined space without a permit and without testing; or working in a trench that is not shored or sloped back to the appropriate angle of repose.

“You have to set up these rules, and guess what? If someone violates one, there are no five-days-subject-to (provisions), no second chances, no warnings. (You’re fired.) The employer has to say, ‘This is the way it is here in this workplace, and this is how we are going to work.’”

Stanley points out that in most companies, cardinal rules are set up for other violations that are not a matter of life or death.

“If two guys are fighting in the middle of the plant, both of them are getting fired. No second chance. If you're on drugs or if you come in drunk, you're done in 99 percent of the places. If you steal, you’re gone. None of those (violations) are going to kill anybody. But we’ll let guys work 30 feet in the air and we’ll only give them a warning? Are you crazy? Why is safety so different from everything else? It doesn’t have to be.”

What OSHA Can’t Regulate

In Stanley’s view, holding workers and supervisors accountable for their actions is the only thing that increases safety levels.

“The sad thing is, if an employer were to follow every single rule OSHA has to the T, it won’t make him or her safe. It will make them safer. But not safe. Because there’s one thing that OSHA can’t regulate. I’ve investigated more fatalities than anyone you know in both the private and public sector and in the vast overwhelming number of those fatalities, [the person] was trained and knew how to do the job safely. And they just didn’t do it.”

Stanley compares such situations to others we hear about all the time outside the workplace.

“It’s like the 40,000 people who die on the highway (each year). Are you telling me they don’t know it’s dangerous to drive 90 mph in a snowstorm? Do you think they don’t know when the sign says 70 that it’s dangerous to go 95? That they don’t know that driving through a school zone at high rates of speed is mad? Sure, they know. But they do it.”  

World-class companies, Stanley adds, recognize this ever-present possibility and get around it by setting up specific rules and methods of safe work and enforcing them. “And their employees, believe it or not, like it because it reduces injuries. And even though they don’t like being disciplined, they understand the reason.”

Technology can also play a key role in today’s health and safety landscape to prevent injuries and keep workers healthy, he says.

“I am totally in favor of anything that can help people avoid spending hundreds and hundreds of hours doing mundane things. If software helps safety people get out into the field more, assisting management in their responsibilities to provide a safe environment, it’s got my support 1,000 percent.”

Room for Improvement

Stanley, who today is president of his own consulting firm, FDRsafety, has a fundamental belief in OSHA’s value and the work it does. “The agency has done so much for working people in this country, and it is underestimated. There is so much less injury and fatality because there was an agency, because there was an incentive for employees to do the right thing, even today. I feel that the American employer is more protected than in any other country.”

Not surprisingly, though, the grizzled industry veteran sees significant room for improvement within the operations of his former employer. Chief among Stanley’s complaints is that OSHA is going after the wrong violators. Because the agency does not have nearly enough inspectors to respond to every potential violation, it must pick and choose what sites it inspects. Problem is, he says, they’re picking on the wrong employers.

“They should be concentrating on the worst ones — and they know where they are. Every single residential contractor is a worst employer because they are hiring untrained and unsophisticated workers in most cases.”

Instead, Stanley says, OSHA targets big contractors with advanced safety programs. “Sure, those big companies are going to have screwups, but the real screwups are these little guys digging laterals, trenching, excavating without shoring and without laying it back…. They should be going after the little iron-worker contractor that has five guys and thinks OSHA is a town in Minnesota.” 

A lack of leadership at OSHA is also causing problems, in Stanley’s view.

“The area directors are very much empowered. You would think that they would be back on their heels under the Trump administration, but they are more aggressive than they were under Obama. There’s no leadership down there. No one is telling them ‘Don’t do it,’ and they're just going out there as safety professionals and beating on people, sometimes not very well.”

About the Author: Greg Enright, Content Marketing Manager, Intelex Technologies

Greg Enright is a veteran writer, journalist and editor with more than 20 years of experience covering the Information Technology and Finance sectors. At Intelex, his focus is on Health and Safety issues. He can be reached at



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January 23, 2019 @ 11:25 AM EST Manufacturing, Construction Health & Safety

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