Safe Passage

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm

By targeting resources toward specific kinds of work sites that tend to be hazardous, the Milwaukee Area Office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is conducting more inspections and issuing more citations than it was seven years ago.

George Yoksas, who assumed his position as director of the Milwaukee office, has seen plenty of changes in recent years, including the emergence of the Bush administration and the local impact of the Miller Park crane accident in 2001.

Yoksas is increasing his office’s outreach programs, in which it works to teach companies and workers what they can do to minimize workplace injuries and illness. On June 22, the Milwaukee office will hold its third annual Safety Day at the University of Phoenix campus in Waukesha. The event includes seminars on safety, emergency procedures, workplace hazards and much more.

Yoksas recently talked with Small Business Times reporter Eric Decker about workplace safety trends and OSHA’s outreach programs. The following are excerpts of that interview.

SBT: In you office, inspections are relatively constant over the past three years, but citations are up. Is there something going on, or is it part of a normal variation?

Yoksas: "Over the last seven or eight years, we are getting better with what we call our targeting, both OSHA as an agency and Milwaukee as an office. We used to target industries, and that was OK, but (by) industry, you’ve got those that are doing very well and you’ve got those that are doing not so well. What would happen, is we would take our precious resources and go to companies that didn’t necessarily need our assistance. Now we do what we call site-specific targeting. We will go to those companies that have, historically, bad or higher injury and illness rates."

SBT: How are you developing the list of companies to target?

Yoksas: "The list for site-specific targeting comes to us through Washington. The Bureau of Labor Statistics sends out an inquiry, and companies report on it. It goes to Washington, where they flesh all that out through the computer systems and they funnel it over to the individual area offices. We also have local emphasis programs specific to area offices or states. Within that, we have information where we might have local issues. We then can develop a local emphasis program for that particular segment of the industry and concentrate some of our resources."

SBT: What are some of the general industries your office has focused on in recent years?

Yoksas: "With respect to some of our national emphasis programs, we have had one for a number of years in trenching and excavating. We have local emphasis programs for Region 5, which is the six states in the Midwest area, for what’s been called falls in construction. Falls have been identified as having an inordinate amount of fatality and injury in construction.

"We have another local emphasis program for amputation. We call it three S’s and a P. It stands for shears, slicers and saws, and the P stands for presses of any sort. We’ve developed lists of those companies that have those types of machinery, and we would inspect that. In Wisconsin, there are probably in the area of 400 to 450 amputations every year."

SBT: Aside from inspections, there is another preventative approach. Do you have programs to try to educate employers what they could do to minimize their risks of injury and illnesses?

Yoksas: "Absolutely – the emphasis programs I talked about are done in conjunction with an outreach program. Starting maybe in 1997 or 1998, we started to look at how we measure things. About eight to 10 years ago, the agency developed a strategic plan, and what this did was look at what we needed to do – reduction of injuries, fatalities and illnesses, and develop those interventions that could accomplish those goals.

"The national office, and in particular our regional administrator, encourages the area offices to use all the tools we can. That would include making presentations to associations or to employee groups, develop training programs packages so that we can put those on for groups or associations, sponsor safety days like the one we have.

"In Milwaukee, we’re kind of proud, we’re just embarking on our third annual Milwaukee General Industry Safety Day. For a whole day, we invite all of the small employers we can and sponsor a day of safety training. The first year, we had about 140 people. Last year, we had about 180 people, and we’re hoping for an even bigger one this year. I think it breaks down a lot of the barriers, a lot of people might have a fear of government."

SBT: Do you still run into a lot of fear of OSHA? Do you feel like having more of an educational outreach might help change people’s perceptions?

Yoksas: "I think so. When I first came to this office seven years ago, I wanted to get out to the regulated community. During a class, not many people would raise their hands, but afterwards they would come out and maybe ask their questions. But what was conspicuous was that people would put their notebook or their hands over their name badge. If it would be one or two, you wouldn’t think anything of it. But when it got to be a thing where everybody seemed to be like that, you wonder what the trust factor was.

"And when you would ask the sponsoring agency or entity for a list (of attendees), it was like you were asking for their first-born kid. You couldn’t get it, because of what I would perceive as a trust (issue). Those have been broken down."

SBT: Are people more open with you and your employees now than they were when you started?

Yoksas: "I think we’ve made tremendous gains. I think that was maybe unique to Wisconsin or Milwaukee. I come from 90 miles south (in Chicago), where that wasn’t an issue. Today I think we have opened the lines of communication. We may not always agree on everything, but at least we know what it is that we are talking (about)."

SBT: Have you formed any relationships with property and casualty insurance carriers? Is there a back-and-forth dialogue that happens between your worlds? You’re both interested in minimizing risk.

Yoksas: "We’re all looking for a safer and healthier workplace. We would like to leverage our resources to get the best bang for our buck we could get. There have been a lot of resources well-spent with our compliance assistance program. We’re to the point of having a full-time compliance assistant specialist. This was maybe six or seven years ago that Congress authorized a full-time position for every area office. Their sole function is to provide compliance assistance."

SBT: So this is the person who is meeting with companies and looking at what they’re doing from a planning or operational standpoint to pass inspection?

Yoksas: "They’re not a consultant. We provide outreach activity, not consultation services. We can provide some training, we can provide some education to groups of individuals. We would meet with our Associated General Contractors and other groups. We can provide the information and speakers, and it does work well."

SBT: During your tenure with the Milwaukee office, are there certain trouble points or violations that keep popping up, despite your enforcement and outreach programs?

Yoksas: "We do look at things statewide. And one thing we have all noted within the last 18 months or so was in the area of trenching or excavating. We have seen, unfortunately, I would use the term ‘back-sliding’ with regard to compliance activities or the non-compliance which we actually see out there. It’s to the point where I actually addressed the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association. We estimated in fiscal 2005 that we would do about 25 trenches or trench excavating inspections. Unfortunately, we did 57 in 2005. It was very frustrating for us."

SBT: What have you done to address this problem?

Yoksas: "I haven’t pulled any punches when I’ve talked to the Wisconsin Underground Contractor’s Association. Whether the bids are so close and competitive that safety’s taking a back seat, I don’t know, because I don’t find a good answer for any of it. It just shouldn’t be. We are taking a posture here that we are going to look closely (at the problem). We are getting more and more of our compliance officers trained to recognize and deal with these issues and we (will) deal with them head on. We want them to know this is not acceptable."

SBT: Are there any areas that used to be a problem, but are doing much better today?

Yoksas: "Since our emphasis on falls in construction, we’ve seen a lot more guard rails that have been installed on buildings. We’ve seen people wearing and utilizing personal fall arrest systems, safety harnesses and other devices of the like. But by the same token, we also see the non-compliance with that. We’ve seen more of the compliant activities, but that doesn’t mean the job is completed. There’s still a ways to go."

SBT: Let’s talk a little bit about the Miller Park tragedy. Was that a black eye for the Milwaukee OSHA office?

Yoksas: "I don’t necessarily look at it as a black eye for the agency, because OSHA is a regulatory agency. The law clearly states that it is clearly the employer’s responsibility for safety and health. Congress puts the burden on the employer’s part. OSHA is a regulatory agency which will (at situations) assure that employers are doing what it is that they need to do. Can we be everywhere at all times? No.

"The Miller Park issue, when you look at it on paper, they had all the mechanisms in place: full-time safety and health people, professionals of some of the largest companies or entities that are around, working toward this. There would be certain expectations that didn’t happen when the tragedy occurred, and we took a real hard look into the whys and what took place, and the citations themselves speak what it is that we found.

"There were some shortcuts that had taken place, and some of that attention to detail which we had thought had been inherent with those types of programs did not take place."

SBT: That begs the question – were there certain lessons learned, things to look for if and when shortcuts have been taken?

Yoksas: "Out of this tragedy, the industry learned a lot. We all knew that wind could affect structures and loads. It’s now more scientific, where we’re calculating wind loads and what affects that those can have. We’re looking at terrain and geography. The industry is coming forward with respect to what was learned. It was a good hard lesson to understand that it’s one thing to go out there and look, but you need to ask a few more questions."

SBT: Are there any new programs that your office will be doing for 2006 that you want people to know about?

Yoksas: "We have a new local emphasis program coming up in the scrap yard area. We’ve had all of the construction going on around town, especially with rehabilitation. What do you do with all the steel? You take it to a scrap yard. Unfortunately, over the years, many of the bridges (where the steel came from) were painted with lead-based paint. Many of the contractors were aware of this, many of the scrap yards were not. We had two instances where we had two very high exposures to lead paint. We will be looking not only at scrap yards, but also the used auto parts yards. That should be coming out in the next week or so. We will get an outreach package involved with that, too."

Getting Busy

The number of citations issued by the Milwaukee Area Office of Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is on the rise.

Fiscal Year Inspections Citations
1999 425 1,157
2000 495 1,006
2001 448 963
2002 540 1,053
2003 550 1,212
2004 528 1,132
2005 527 1,467

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