Recognizing Bias in the Occupational Safety and Health Professional

A recent case involving Sea World and a Cal/OSHA inspector has highlighted the challenges of personal bias influencing our work as Occupational Health and Safety professionals.  The issue was centered on a Cal/OSHA inspector citing Sea World with as much as $23,000 in penalties following a 2014 incident where a kitchen worker reportedly immersed her hand in a deep fryer inadvertently.  Sea World appealed the citations.  One portion of Sea World’s argument against the citations was a claim that there was evidence that the inspector held a personal bias against the park.  As part of their appeal in the 2014 case, Sea World presented tweets the Cal/OSHA inspector had posted on her personal Twitter account about the park which Sea World claimed showed her dislike for the park’s operations.  The administrative law judge assigned to the case ruled in favor of Sea World reducing the total fine to $560.

One interesting point that this case presented was that many Cal/OSHA inspectors are being hired directly out of college without having spent time working in the private sector.  An inspector should be actively engaged in the pursuit of protecting workers’ safety and have a thorough understanding of the safety orders they are assigned to enforce.  However, the inspectors may be at a disadvantage if they don’t have a working knowledge of how safety orders are applied on-site in the various industries the inspector will encounter due to their lack of experience in designing and implementing safety programs in the private sector.  It has been argued that this lack of private sector experience may result in Cal/OSHA inspectors being biased against employers and in favor of employees particularly because inspectors are so often only present when a serious safety incident has occurred and have not experienced the day-to-day effort that is required to maintain a safe working environment.  The concerns for the potential for bias amongst Cal/OSHA inspectors should not be interpreted as evidence that there is a widespread problem with inspectors being influenced by personal biases when making professional judgements.

Throughout our careers it is crucially important that as professionals we are aware of our own biases, and if possible, maintain professional integrity to keep our assessments as objective as possible based on the facts of the situation.  Successful Occupational Safety & Health professionals understand that without employers there would be no workers; and that we can work with Cal/OSHA, private-sector employers and employees to create safe work environments and successful companies.