New OSHA poster questioned by AFL-CIO, house committee

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), part of the Department of Labor, issued in February the first update in seven years to its “It’s the Law!” poster. Critics say the changes reflect the agency’s shift from enforcing workplace safety rules to helping companies comply with those rules.

The complaints about the poster illustrate the dissatisfaction of organized labor and some congressional Democrats with what they see as OSHA’s skewed priorities under the Bush administration.

An OSHA spokeswoman defended the agency’s performance in an e-mail, writing that OSHA inspections have increased under this administration.

The agency also contests that it modified the poster only to make it easier for workers to read and get information. Employers are not required to replace the old poster with the updated one.

The poster is a familiar sight in workplaces around the country, because federal law requires it be displayed in view in all places of business. It is based on the language of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970.

The criticism of the updated poster has focused on formatting issues and two new sections specifically directed to employers. The previous version was designed solely to inform workers.

“The original purpose of this poster was to provide information for workers about their rights. Compared to the original, the new poster makes it easier for employers to learn about OSHA’s ‘voluntary compliance assistance’ for employers, instead of making it easier for workers to use their rights to ensure a safe workplace,” a spokesman for the House Education and Labor Committee told The Hill in an e-mail. The panel is expected to step up its oversight of OSHA this year.

“This is supposed to be a poster about workers’ rights,” AFL-CIO Director of Safety and Health Peg Seminario protested.

The bulk of the poster’s content remains focused on employees’ rights. “The poster text remains 95% the same from previous versions,” the OSHA spokeswoman wrote. But the new language advises workers that their employers are required to hang the poster. It also adds the word “retaliation” to a section on employer intimidation. And a new section tells workers, “You must comply with all occupational safety and health standards issued under the OSH Act that apply to your own actions and conduct on the job.”

In the poster’s two sections about employers, one part appears below the text for employees and reminds businesses that “You must furnish your employees a place of employment free from recognized hazards.” It also states that employers must comply with the OSH Act.

The other section, directly above the agency’s toll-free number, notifies employers that OSHA provides consultation programs for companies. The hotline number is printed in substantially smaller text compared to the previous edition of the poster.

To the AFL’s Seminario, using this poster to promote compliance consultations suggests that the administration believes OSHA exists to help employers, not employees. “The administration here has really focused a lot of effort in reaching out to employers,” she said.

The OSHA spokeswoman disagreed, asserting, “Adding these services to our enforcement programs is a prudent, realistic, balanced approach to ensuring the safety and health of employees.”

Seminario said that the old poster was more useful because it placed the hotline number beneath information instructing workers to use the number to file complaints. The old poster also included telephone contact information for regional OSHA offices.

In fact, those numbers were one of the reasons OSHA decided to change the poster, the agency said. Since the old version was distributed in 2000, the telephone numbers for two of its regional offices changed.

But the primary reason for developing a new “It’s the Law!” poster, OSHA said, was to make it more eye-catching and easier to read. The old one is to harder to read when printed on a standard computer printer, the agency said. OSHA also inverted the design from black text on a white background to white-on-black.

The poster is available to download on OSHA’s website, and the agency issued a press release to promote it.

The agency also defended the addition of information for employers, saying that businesses should know that OSHA provides assistance for firms developing plans to enhance workplace safety.

OSHA employees designed the new poster internally and did not seek comments from representatives of employers or employees, the agency said.