August 27, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 8Comment

A classic tool used in public relations is a news release. Companies and other organizations craft these statements to announce new products, activities or accomplishments. Well-written news releases offer the what, where, when, who and why, and are often used “as-is” in trade publications and other print media. A collection of an organization’s news release might also reveal its state-of-mind, its priorities and focus. In a sense, a historical record of the issues the organization’s leaders believed were deserving of (or needing) public attention.

My interest in news releases stems from an inquiry I received last week. A colleague asked me whether OSHA had changed significantly during the Obama Administration compared to the Bush/Chao era. I offered several anecdotes describing policy changes in the works. I would have felt more satisfied, however, had I been able to provide more concrete evidence. This exchange led me to think about OSHA’s news releases as a source of “data” to examine the agency’s focus during two very different Presidential Administrations. Specifically, I examined whether the topics addressed in OSHA’s news releases issued during the term of the previous assistant secretary, Edwin Foulke, are substantially different from those issued by the current OSHA chief, David Michaels, PhD. Here’s what I found:

Under both OSHA chiefs, the agency issued news releases that fell into several categories: (1) results of major enforcement cases in which violations and penalties were proposed; (2) results of investigations of whistle blower complaints; (3) recognition of employers with exceptional worker health and safety performance; (4) announcements of alliances, partnerships or collaboration between OSHA and other organizations; and (5) other topics including advisory committee meetings, special events, speeches and proposed or finalized regulatory changes.

I reviewed the news releases for the first full-seven months of Dr. Michaels’ tenure (January 1 – July 31, 2010) and the seven-month period January 1 – July 31, 2010 when Mr. Foulke was serving as the OSHA chief. The total number of news releases issued during these two periods was substantially similar: 284 in 2008 and 262 in 2010. That’s where the similarities seem to end.

Mr. Foulke’s OSHA had a preference for issuing news releases announcing alliances and recognizing the safety performance of particular firms. More than 45% of the 284 news releases issued from January through July 2008 fell into this category. During Dr. Michaels’ tenure, less than 8% of OSHA’s news releases concerned alliances, partnerships and recognition of particular employers.

The current OSHA leadership team emphasizes the agency’s authority to conduct inspections and enforce health and safety regulations. This is consistent with the phrase repeated in their speeches: “there’s a new sheriff in town.” Nearly 55% of the news releases issued in the first seven months of this year reported on specific enforcement cases with the names of employers cited, the types and severity of violations found and proposed monetary penalties. Another 5% of the agency’s news releases announce the successful disposition of whistle blower complaints. During the comparison period for the Bush/Chao OSHA, less than one-third of news releases concerned enforcement cases. Both administration’s favored regional news releases (rather than national) to announce major enforcement cases, but overall, the Obama OSHA issued 24 statements for national distribution compared to only nine in the comparison period for the GWBush/Chao administration.

What this “data” from the news releases can’t tell us is whether the number of inspections, the penalties proposed or the types of alliances and partnerships has changed substantially between the current and previous OSHA administrations. It merely reflects what the current OSHA leadership wants to publicize about its activities and accomplishments. The previous OSHA chief promoted alliances and partnerships, and the agency’s news releases indicated that fact. The current assistant secretary for OSHA, David Michaels, speaks with contempt about employers who intentionally disregard safety protections for workers. He is using some news releases to shame employers. As he mentioned in a recent letter to OSHA employees (and reported here by Liz):

“Employers must know that it is not acceptable to put workers at risk. Not only do they risk fines but they themselves risk public condemnation of their activities.”

8 thoughts on “Change at OSHA visible in news releases

  1. Both administrations Bush and Obama ignored small employers The present administration is being heavily influence by unions that represent less than 15 percent of the workforce and is exploiting the Latino workforce politically.

  2. Regarding small employers, you’ll find quite a few in our press releases. Just for example, check these out:

    August 23 – [National News Release] – 2010 – 08/23/2010 – US Department of Labor’s OSHA cites E.N. Range Inc. in Miami, Fla., more than $2 million for exposing workers to lead and other hazards

    August 24 – [Region 4 News Release] – 2010 – 08/24/2010 – Gun range in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., cited by US Department of Labor’s OSHA for health violations with $62,000 in penalties

  3. Very interesting way to examine whether there is a change in priorities at OSHA …

    I would suggest, though, that press releases might actually represent what agency officials want the public to believe are their priorities. Part of it is a function of playing to one’s political base.

    But perhaps more importantly, what kind of response to reporters who receive these news releases get when they try to get more information from OSHA about the problems cited in the releases and what OSHA did and didn’t do about those problems both prior to and after any accidents?

    For example, I personally have not found much of a difference in how OSHA responds to such follow-up queries. Often, the releases provide precious little detail that would allow a reporter to write an informative story about the workplace problems that prompted OSHA action, and getting the DOL Public Affairs Office to help with such inquiries hits a brick wall or a black hole.

    Ken Ward Jr.
    The Charleston Gazette
    Charleston, W.Va.

  4. Ken,
    Point taken that news releases probably “represent what agency officials want the public to BELIEVE are their priorities.” I said it in a slightly different way: “merely reflects what the current OSHA leadership WANTS to publicize about its activities and accomplishments.” Neither is necessary what is newsworthy to those outside of the agency.

    Let’s see if we can’t get someone from the Secretary of Labor’s Public Affairs Office to respond to your comment about follow-up inquiries.

  5. Mr. Barab fining employers small or big that ignore safety is good. But what part of your strategy includes helping the small employers that want to be safe and do not have the resources. Fining them puts them out of business and they will refile under a new name.
    Helping them will make them safer and prevent workers from getting hurt. Fining is part of the strategy but where is the help?
    The press releases are all part of the sensationalist media strategy. How many of those fines are actually paid? How many of the violations stick? Are there any reports on this? A great Latino Health and Safety Summit took place in April. Where are the initiatives to help the small latino companies? Maybe the resources are helping the Unions.
    OSHA se olvido de La Raza.

  6. I also noticed how frequent the news releases regarding citations and enforcement have become. It seems that OSHA is trying to “flex their muscle”.

    Also, Celeste brings up a good point. Press releases do not necessarily reflect the priorities of an organization, but may also be used to direct attention and create a sense of priority, false or otherwise.

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