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Federal agencies

‘More work to be done’

A Q&A with OSHA administrator David Michaels on the agency’s goals and challenges for the years ahead

September 1, 2013

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Historically, OSHA administrators have served for only one presidential term, but current OSHA chief David Michaels is bucking that trend.

Michaels was confirmed in December 2009, and OSHA announced earlier this year that he would stay on for President Barack Obama’s second term, setting the epidemiologist up to become the longest-serving OSHA administrator in the agency’s four-decade history.

Safety+Health reached out to Michaels shortly after the announcement was made to inquire about his goals during Obama’s final term, challenges OSHA faces and criticism the agency has endured.

Michaels said OSHA has “achieved a great deal,” but outlined what more the agency must do to help ensure the safety of America’s workers.

The following interview was conducted via email, and some responses have been condensed for space.

Safety+Health: Has your approach to helping ensure workplaces are safe for employees changed since you first took on OSHA’s top post in 2009? If so, in what ways has your approach changed?

David Michaels: We are dedicated to protecting the safety and health of this nation’s workers. We have focused the agency on the most dangerous workplaces and most vulnerable workers, and we have strengthened our whistleblower protection activities. We’ve launched the new Severe Violator Enforcement Program to target the worst of the worst violators and issued a record number of significant and egregious enforcement cases – including the largest fine in OSHA history. We’ve also issued three major standards covering cranes and derricks, shipyards, and hazard communication.

We’ve played an influential role in protecting cleanup and recovery workers in national disasters and conducted unprecedented outreach and education to vulnerable workers – including Latinos, members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community and others with limited English proficiency. We’ve also conducted a vigorous compliance assistance program to employers and workers – including two national outreach campaigns – and translated publications into Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish, Korean, Tagalog and other languages.

We have achieved a great deal, but there is much more work to be done.

As the structure of the American economy evolves, it has become even clearer to us that workers have a vital role to play in ensuring that their workplaces are safe. The growth of the contingent workforce, the number of vulnerable workers in our most dangerous occupations, the increasing transience of workers in occupations where we once saw much more stability – all present challenges previous administrations did not have to face.

We must continually renew our efforts to ensure that workers are empowered to get the information they need about the hazards they face, and that they have the ability to use the rights they are entitled to under the law without fear of retaliation.

S+H: Almost immediately upon taking the reins at OSHA, you were confronted with critics who suggested that regulations kill jobs. Your response has been the opposite – OSHA helps prevent jobs from killing employees. Were you surprised by this anti-regulatory sentiment? What is being done to change people’s minds about regulations and OSHA enforcement?

Michaels: As I have been saying since I joined the agency, we at OSHA don’t kill jobs – we stop jobs from killing workers.

The empirical evidence continues to demonstrate that OSHA inspections prevent injuries, and we do this without hurting employment or employer profitability. Three rigorous studies recently confirmed the effectiveness of our enforcement activities.

These studies, all published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals (including one published in the world-renowned journal Science), affirm the value of the work we do. I’ve summarized the findings of these studies in a Commentary published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

S+H: The rulemaking process has long been criticized by some stakeholders as being too lengthy, but that criticism has sharpened in recent years due to the extraordinary amount of time some rules – including silica – have spent under review by the Office of Management and Budget. What kinds of discussions are occurring with OMB to prompt them to move more expeditiously on some of these delayed rules? What has OSHA done under your tenure to speed up the rulemaking process in other areas?

Michaels: OMB accepted OSHA’s proposed silica standard for review on Feb. 14, 2011. Since then, OSHA staff has been working with OMB staff to address complex issues related to the costs, benefits and economic impact analyses. This has required extensive new analyses by OSHA and additional review by OMB. OSHA will continue to work to with OMB to allow OMB to complete its review as quickly as possible.

S+H: Some stakeholders have noted the decades it would take OSHA to inspect all U.S. workplaces and recent tragedies such as the fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX, as evidence your agency needs more resources. Do you agree? If so, where would additional resources be most beneficial?

Michaels: OSHA is focused on using its resources as efficiently as possible in order to carry out our mission to protect workers. Some of these resources are the tools and strategies laid out by the law, which include enforcement, compliance assistance, recognition programs and standard setting. These we must use in ways that will be most effective, applying the tools and strategies most appropriate for each employer. We are also making more effective use of technological resources to fulfill our mission, moving toward electronic reporting of data, upgrading our computer infrastructure to replace the inefficient and antiquated data system, enabling staff to conduct online meetings rather than traveling across the country, purchasing government cars that are smaller and more fuel efficient, and, where possible, replacing printed publications with online publications.

S+H: How is OSHA coping with the sequester? What internal changes – if any – have been made?

Michaels: While OSHA is making reductions in operations as a result of sequestration, no mission-critical activities will be significantly cut. Necessary reductions will be accomplished by realignment and consolidation of staff into areas where there is the greatest need, limiting travel and training, and by eliminating activities where technology and process improvement can supplement the lack of resources.

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