Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to Montana to speak to a labor-management advisory committee that is struggling to develop more effective strategies to address the high injury and fatality rates in that state. They invited me as the current chair of the Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association, which is made up of state OSHA programs from around the country.
Montana is considering pursuit of a full state plan, covering both the private and public sectors, which would make them the first program to take that course since the early days of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (there have been recent state plans created, but they have been public-sector only, leaving private-sector enforcement in federal hands). Because of my contact with other state programs around the country, I was able to talk about various approaches to a wide range of issues. But it was Oregon's experience that proved most useful.
Oregon has a clear record of success using a comprehensive approach to injury prevention to bring workers' compensation costs under control. That, after all, is the story of the past two and a half decades. Government, business, and workers have succeeded in demonstrating that the best way to control claims costs is to prevent the claims in the first place.
The government portion of that partnership largely takes the form of Oregon OSHA. Oregon OSHA itself reflects a recognition that we can most effectively eliminate and reduce hazards in the workplace using a wide range of tools. Educational materials, on-site consultations, outreach training activities, conferences and other collaborative efforts, and meaningful enforcement all play a role in Oregon's success.
Montana has embarked on many of those activities, but they are unable to coordinate their various education and consultation efforts with the enforcement activities in the state because enforcement remains in the hands of federal OSHA. Even geography is against them, with the state's primary offices in Helena and the federal OSHA office located in Billings, on the other end of the state.
I encouraged them to seriously consider taking control of their own destiny. With the size of their workers' compensation bill, it seems clear that they could develop a program that would pay for itself after a few years.
But I also cautioned them against treating the state plan as a magic solution that would fix their problems simply through its creation. It can be an effective tool, but even the best tool is effective only if it is used. Here in Oregon, we had a state plan for more than 15 years before we really began to use it effectively, following the comprehensive workers' compensation reforms that began around 1990. It wasn't enough to have a state plan.
It may be nice to dream of magic bullets, but they aren't real. Our past successes have been the result of hard work, and our future successes will require the same creativity and dedication.
Oregon OSHA Administrator
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