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OSHA says inspection program fine-tuned, not ‘shelved’

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An Occupational Safety and Health Administration program meant to ferret out employers that under report workplace injuries is honing its focus on more large manufacturing sites, the agency’s No.2 official told reporters today.

OSHA has inspected 187 worksites as part of its Recordkeeping National Emphasis Program, finding violations in about half of them, said Jordan Barab, the Labor Department’s deputy assistant secretary for occupational safety and health. The program was launched one year ago to review injury records prepared by companies in selected industries with high injury rates.

Barab held a news conference to refute a nonprofit group’s contention that the OSHA initiative had been “shelved.” Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which issued a report criticizing the program’s “poor design and anemic implementation,” failed to consider that recordkeeping inspections take about three times as long as other inspections, Barab said.

PEER claimed that OSHA had suspended the program and blasted the agency for ignoring high-hazard industries – petroleum refineries, chemical plants and paper mills, for example – while focusing on small businesses and certain geographic areas.

But Barab said the agency had merely revised its criteria for targeting sites, and cautioned against drawing conclusions based on data from an initiative that won’t be completed until 2012. The data may also be skewed by differences in implementation among states – something the agency is examining, Barab said.

OSHA has no plans to focus on some high-hazard sites, such as refineries, because their problems stem not from high numbers of minor injuries but rather from poor handling of hazardous chemicals that could lead to explosions or catastrophic releases of toxic substances, he said.

“There are several different goals here,” Barab said of the program. “One is just to find out what’s going on.” Another is to send a message to companies – via penalties – that injury and illness book-cooking won’t go unpunished. When the initiative is finished, he said, OSHA may have a better idea if it needs to change recordkeeping requirements.

A PEER spokesman was not available for comment.