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Q&A: A 'commonsense' approach

April 1, 2010

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OSHA administrator David Michaels explains his agency's mission and goals

By Kyle W. Morrison, associate editor

Biography

David Michaels

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, Dec. 9, 2009-present

Experience

  • Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services, directing the department’s Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, 2001-2009
  • Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety and Health, 1998-2001

Education

  • Doctor of Philosophy (sociomedical sciences), Columbia University, 1981
  • Master of Public Health (epidemiology), Columbia University, 1987

In the past several months, OSHA has stepped up its regulation making and enforcement efforts, resulting in record-breaking fines. In an interview with Safety+Health magazine, OSHA administrator David Michaels said these actions are part of an effort to return the agency to its roots as an enforcement agency and provide an incentive for employers to take the necessary steps to protect their workers.

An epidemiologist, Michaels came to OSHA in December with a background in both education and government, having previously taught at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services and worked for the Clinton administration as assistant secretary of energy for environment, safety and health. During George W. Bush’s presidency, Michaels criticized OSHA for the agency’s perceived inactions in both his blog and a book published in 2008.

Now at the helm of the agency he once criticized, Michaels has the opportunity to change course. What follows are Michaels’ responses to questions concerning his plans for OSHA during his tenure, what his priorities are, and what measurements he will use to judge his own success.

This interview was conducted via e-mail, and Michaels’ responses are presented in their entirety.

Safety+Health: Your supporters have praised your previous experience in academia and government, while critics claim you support “junk” science. What is your response, and why do you believe you will make a good assistant secretary of labor for OSHA?

Michaels:OSHA standards and enforcement affect the lives of millions of working men and women. This is a commonsense agency working to develop commonsense standards that impact the lives of these working men and women. OSHA is committed to strong science.

Realistically, OSHA is not going to propose any standard that isn’t backed by strong science, nor will we require practices that haven’t been adopted already by hundreds or even thousands of companies that take pride in going above and beyond any conceivable OSHA standards. We are looking for commonsense solutions that are efficient and effective and that includes commonsense science that works. And, like any other governmental agency or business venture, OSHA has to leverage its resources to do a better job in protecting workers.

S+H: What are your priorities for OSHA, and what will you put into place to accomplish them?

Michaels: This administration is returning OSHA to the original intent of the [Occupational Safety and Health] Act, a public health regulatory and enforcement agency, and, in all honesty, it’s about time we act like it. Our authority stems directly from the need to prevent events and exposures that kill and maim American workers. We’re moving toward tougher citations and penalties not simply to punish, but to provide a powerful incentive for employers to respect their workers, integrate protection into business operations and make prevention a priority. We also are looking at ways to develop commonsense and effective regulations more quickly.

S+H: It’s no secret the length of time it takes to promulgate a standard has its critics. While that is partly due to steps OSHA is required to take, can any steps be taken to speed up the process? If so, what are those steps, and can we expect OSHA under your watch to take them?

Michaels: I absolutely agree that implementing OSHA standards is a slow and cumbersome process, largely due to the extensive analyses and processes OSHA uses to comply with various laws, executive orders and court decisions. However, we are looking at ways to streamline the lengthy rulemaking process to update standards and issue new standards to improve worker protections. If we can regulate more efficiently, we can deal with outdated standards that do not reflect modern, more effective protective measures, and move forward to deal with new issues arising in today’s rapidly evolving workplaces.

We are working to deal with outdated standards by adopting the globally harmonized system of hazard communication, revising the construction cranes and derricks standard, and updating our walking-working surfaces standards. Other examples of updates to existing standards include updates to consensus standards, as we just did for the acetylene standard, and the standards improvement process rule, which will deal with a number of smaller problems in existing standards. Of course, we also are pursuing new standards in several areas, including silica, beryllium, diacetyl and combustible dust.

While we are developing individual rules and shepherding them through the clearance processes, we also are looking for ways we can expedite clearances and simplify analyses while ensuring legal sufficiency and providing serious policy review. We will continue to implement more efficient processes where we can.

We also are improving the process by providing strong political leadership for the agency, setting clear and consistent regulatory priorities, resolving policy issues as they arise, and supporting the career staff as they deal with the complex issues involved in individual rules.

S+H: In an editorial you wrote last winter for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health’s Safety Rep, you outlined objectives you would like to see OSHA take. One was a campaign to change how our country thinks about workplace safety. Is this still something you would like to see the agency do and, if so, what steps will be taken to do so?

Michaels: Yes, I still feel that changing the workplace culture will improve the safety and health of workers. And that includes training workers and providing them with the opportunity to play an active role in how to keep the workplace safe. I also want to continue moving OSHA to direct its resources at those employers not meeting their obligations under the OSH Act. We want to direct enforcement resources to employers that have patterns of systemic violations. Hence, we are very close to launching OSHA’s Serious Violators Enforcement Program (SVEP) that focuses on recalcitrant employers. We also are revising the agency’s Corporate Settlement Directive, we launched a recordkeeping National Emphasis Program, and we are looking closely at possibly revising the reductions OSHA gives on penalties.

S+H: In the same journal, you mentioned that every employer should have a program in place aimed at reducing job hazards. What is being done at OSHA to address that? Are we going to see a standard?

Michaels: There is a lot of information demonstrating that employers who have active safety and health programs that include worker participation and identify and correct workplace hazards have lowered injury and illness rates, reduced workers’ compensation costs, reduced employee turnover, and improved labor-management relations. We are looking at a variety of ways to provide information and implement more of these injury and illness prevention programs.

S+H: What does OSHA need to more effectively improve workplace safety?

Michaels: Companies and workers need to know that we will not tolerate neglect of worker safety and health. And, in that effort, we want them to know OSHA will react swiftly and strongly when workers are put at risk. To support our enforcement efforts, OSHA is moving toward improving recordkeeping. We need accurate data to effectively target our inspections and resources, and to measure the impact of OSHA’s actions on workplace safety.

S+H: How are you going to measure the success of OSHA under your tenure? What are the benchmarks?

Michaels: OSHA is about people – hard-working people who go to work every day and whose employers do little to make sure they are safe on their jobs. I don’t know if this can be accomplished in my term here at OSHA, but there can be no success when a worker dies from a fall that could have been prevented or the thousands of other worker-related fatalities that could have been prevented. Or, an injury or amputation could have been avoided with proper machine maintenance or appropriate training in the workplace. This not only makes common sense, it makes life sense. It makes economic sense.

We also need to move beyond the traditional ways of measuring our progress – simply counting the number of standards issued, or counting the number of inspections conducted, or counting the amount of fines issued. In the future, we need to start examining the things that are hard to count but nevertheless make a fundamental and enormous impact on work in this country – such as the way work is organized and the impact of work hours, fatigue, and health and safety programs.

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