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Michaels on OSHA at 40: Much accomplished, much to do

January 20, 2011

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Washington – OSHA administrator David Michaels lashed out at his agency's critics by stressing OSHA is committed to providing employers with information to keep their workers safe.

OSHA has been under attack since its inception by critics who suggest the agency's enforcement policies are counterproductive and its regulations hamper economic growth, according to Michaels.

"Let me say this as clearly as I can: OSHA is not working to kill jobs; we're here to stop jobs from killing workers," he said in a Jan. 18 speech to the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

Standards that protect workers and enforcement of those standards result in a level playing field where employers who invest in safety are not underbid by those who cut corners on safety, Michaels said.

The speech is the first in a series Michaels plans to give for OSHA's 40th anniversary; the agency was established on April 28, 1971.

In 1970, about 14,000 workers died in the United States, according to Michaels. In 1972, 10.9 injuries or illnesses occurred per 100 workers. Both those figures fell in the ensuing years to about 4,400 deaths and a rate of less than 4 injuries and illnesses per 100 workers in 2009.

"While worker deaths, injuries and illnesses are far lower today than 40 years ago, they're not low enough," he said. "There is still much work to be done."

Reflecting on the recent Deepwater Horizon explosion that claimed the lives of 11 workers and the 2006 Sago coal mine explosion that killed 12, Michaels noted that an average of 12 workers are killed every day in this country in events that do not receive much media attention.

"If a Deepwater Horizon or a Sago-like disaster was reported in the news every day, there would be a public outcry," Michaels said.

Challenges

To help curb the thousands of workplace deaths and millions of injuries each year, Michaels said OSHA faces a number of challenges, several of which would require congressional intervention.

He bemoaned the small number of staff available to inspect the millions of jobsites, monetary fine limitations set far below those of other agencies and the lack of OSHA protection afforded to workers in the public sector.

In the previous legislative session, two Democrat-sponsored bills – H.R. 2067 and H.R. 5663 – would have made many of these changes, but the legislation failed. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) reintroduced similar legislation in January, but it faces long odds of passing a Republican-controlled House.

Michaels also touched on many initiatives the agency is pursuing, including upcoming regulations, growth of compliance assistance programs and recent administrative changes to its penalty policies.

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