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Ron Owen

Advisory Engineer, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies

A safety leader and teacher, he gives back through the Cal/VPP process.

Ron OwenResume: Owen is a board-certified safety professional who has been working in the discipline of safety engineering for more than 30 years. He is an advisory engineer, employed by Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, Inc., and is active in self-assessment programs, management systems, legislative and regulatory affairs projects, and has worked extensively on successful attainment of Star recognition, the California Voluntary Protection Program for companies dedicated to maintaining an excellent safety and health program. He is a professional member of the American Society of Safety Engineers and a member of the System Safety Society. Previously, he was employed by International Business Machines Corporation, the Insurance Company of North America, and the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. After completing his undergraduate degree, he served in the United States Air Force as an instructor pilot and flight safety officer.

Schools: He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Colorado State University, a master’s degree in safety from the University of Southern California, and a law degree from Santa Clara University.

Awards: He received special recognition from the Cal/OSHA Consultation Service for being the Outstanding Special Team Member of 2010.

Certifications & designations: Certified Safety Professional (CSP)

Inspiration: Ted S. Ferry, Ed.D., CSP, Professor, Institute of Safety and Systems Management, University of Southern California, Lecturer and Author (“Directions in Safety” © 1976)

Favorite book or favorite quote: “If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.” (Sherlock Holmes)

 

Q&A

 

The opinions expressed on these topics are Owen’s own personal views and are not reflective of Hitachi GST or other companies or organizations he has been associated with.

 

What are the top issues in California occupational safety and health today?

Maintaining a safe and healthful workplace, given the significant pressure placed on reducing cost due to overseas competition for goods. I think we’ve all seen dramatically in the news the pressure on jobs from overseas operations. The Solyndra bankruptcy obviously took away a lot of jobs. What I’m seeing is companies are being put in the position of either compromising on things that are being produced in the U.S. or going overseas and letting the overseas government handle safety in their own way. There is a difference in the way governments handle safety in the workplace. Some are more sophisticated and some are less sophisticated.

Multinational companies, even overseas, are competing with companies that are internal to the country involved, a company that is basically based in that foreign country. So there is even that kind of competition. I can tell you in past experiences, not with this company, but in past experience, companies would set up operations in two or three locations and see which one produces the best-quality product at the lowest cost. Then production would then shift to the location that seemed to be the most efficient in that particular part of their product line. So every dollar spent toward producing a product is reviewed carefully.

Health and safety is no exception. It is like the cost of energy or the cost of transporting goods.

What you see is the company that wants to go above and beyond mere compliance with OSHA, it has to justify those dollars in light of a competitive environment. It is sometimes difficult to show a payback in dollars for going above and beyond minimum code requirements. And there is no doubt that unscrupulous companies don’t even comply with the legal requirements. That is a competitive advantage for them. At least in the short run they don’t have to pay for the safety costs. Now arguably they pay for it in the long run through accidents, fatalities, fines and bad publicity. But a lot of companies seem to be in it for the short term more than the long term.

 

Injury and illness rates continue to decrease, with some exceptions. What's the next great leap forward in occupational safety and health?

While there is a place for tracking injuries and illness, it should not be the focus of an organization that is committed to providing a safe and healthful work environment. Moving beyond counting incidents, a really committed organization needs to focus on encouraging employee involvement and empowerment. My observations indicate that the more involved employees are, the more effective the management system will be. Clearly, management must exercise leadership, but without the direct involvement of employees, the system will not move forward.

 

One group -- Hispanics/Latinos -- suffers a disproportionate number of injuries and illnesses. Why? How should California address this problem?

Cultural differences and language barriers must be understood before real improvement can be expected. The challenges not only apply to Hispanics and Latinos, but to our Middle Eastern and Asian population. I believe that the bottom line resolution must be driven down to basic occupational safety and health education, especially in high school, when young people are moving toward a career and independence.

 

The Injury and Illness Prevention Program is the basic safety requirement for California employers. Now Fed-OSHA is working toward adopting its version of this requirement. Does the California IIPP standard need revision or is it fine the way it is? And if it needs revision, how so?

I don’t believe that any safety and health regulation should be left unchanged in the face of demonstrated improvements. With that said, I also believe that the Cal-OSHA IIPP is a great place for Fed-OSHA to begin and that a larger domestic experience with IIPPs will provide the evidence needed for continuing improvements in both arenas.

 

If you could change anything about Cal/OSHA, what would it be?

                a. Should enforcement be increased?

                b. Communications

                c. Training for inspectors

I would change two things relative to the operation of Cal-OSHA:

1. I would devote significant resources to outreach (e.g., double consultation staffing) to encourage companies to strive for improvements in safety and health.

2. I would significantly increase the monetary penalties (based on the company’s annual sales)

 for companies that demonstrate willful, repeat violations of regulations that result in death.

 

Some observers say injury and illness rates are higher than they appear because employers find ways to hide injuries, or not record them. Do you agree this is a serious problem and if so, how should it be addressed?

The statement may be correct, but serious accident results cannot be hidden because people die or are hospitalized. I think there should be significant focus on serious injuries/illnesses and death rather than a focus on the frequency of injuries and illnesses. Workers’ compensation seems to do a good job dealing with frequency through Experience Modification Rating (EMR) and cost of insurance.

 

California  has a long history of crafting groundbreaking regulations that the rest of the country eventually picks up. What's the next one?

Basically, innovation comes from direct involvement by the regulated community. The value I see in the Cal-OSHA approach is the way standards are promulgated using the Standards Board. But specifically, the Cal-OSHA Internet page has gone a long way to making regulations immediately available to employers and employees alike. But I think the next innovation that should be considered is making the Cal-OSHA Internet site a “smart site” whereby individuals could type a search query that would provide a smart way to get to the practical answer. For example, if the person asked about chemical storage, the search result wouldn’t be a simple list of regulations that contain the words “chemical” and “storage.” It would probe the person to get details about the nature of the concern and then would provide a simple answer based on what the regulations require, almost like talking to a Cal-OSHA Consultant.

 

Will AB 2774 resolve the problems cited by DOSH on serious violations and provide a more equitable appeals system? If not, how should it be reformed?

I see the main concern with AB 2774 in the beginning statement:

“There shall be a rebuttable presumption that a ‘serious violation’ exists in a place of employment if the division demonstrates that there is a realistic possibility that death or serious physical harm could result from the actual hazard created by the violation.”

This statement places the burden of proof on the employer to show that the violation wasn’t serious based on an assertion by the division. I believe that the burden of proof for violations should always rest with the prosecutor and it should not shift to the defendant. It is like assuming a party is guilty and then having them prove their innocence.

 

What should Cal/OSHA do to help small employers create safe workplaces and comply with Title 8 regulations?

Cal-OSHA has occasionally provided employers with “lesson learned” materials that show real life solutions to safety and health problems. But I think that this effort should be dramatically expanded to cover as many industries as possible (e.g., health care, warehousing, construction, etc.).

 

What about safety do employers struggle with the most?
As a mentor and special team member in Cal-OSHA VPP, I find that employers struggle with maintaining the focus, over time, on safety and health. Practically any organization can create a special-emphasis program that gets immediate attention. But the maintenance of a program requires determination and real dedication, not just a “quick fix” mentality.


Are there reliable and knowledgeable training people available?

I believe that the best trainers are employees who have had actual experiences dealing with the subjects of interest. Train-the-trainer programs are the best way to get the information effectively disseminated to line employees (e.g., forklift operators, lockout, live service, etc.).

 

What kind of training is the most crucial for employers to provide?

Job-specific health and safety training is most critical because it identifies potential hazards and preventive steps required to avoid incidents at the individual workstation.

 

What else do you read to get your occupational safety and health information?

The Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable is an organization I am associated with that continually discusses current and future safety and health concepts and issues. The organization publishes regular newsletters and hosts teleconferences and seminars.

 

How did you get started in safety? Was there any particular experience in your career that triggered your interest in safety? What’s interesting about it? What’s interesting about it now?

I was in pilot training and an accident at my base killed the student pilot. I flew through the smoke of his wrecked airplane and became very interested in safety. Later in the Air Force, I was given the opportunity to be a flight safety officer. That’s when I knew I wanted a career in safety.

 

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