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Long run: An interview with OSHA’s David Michaels

As he prepares to leave OSHA, the agency administrator reflects on his seven-year tenure

Photo: Michael Buxbaum

David Michaels is proud of his tenure as OSHA’s longest-serving administrator.

Michaels, 61, will step down from his post at the agency by the end of the year to return to his role as a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University in Washington. The transition will mark the end of a seven-year leadership period for Michaels, who became OSHA’s 12th administrator in December 2009 after he was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate.

During an exclusive interview with Safety+Health, Michaels reflected on his tenure and outlined some of his goals for OSHA before he leaves office. He spoke in Chicago, where he attended the National Safety Council’s 2016 Green Cross for Safety Awards ceremony.

Safety+Health: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned during your tenure as OSHA administrator?

David Michaels: The big challenge we face is to engage as many employers as we can to change what’s going on in their workplaces. There is a whole range of employers. Employers who are here [at the NSC Green Cross for Safety Awards ceremony], for example, are probably the ones who are greatly committed to workplace safety. But there are a tremendous number who are not. The challenge we have is: How do we reach them where they are, not by doing inspections – because we can only do a limited number of inspections – but how do we convince them that protecting the lives and limbs and lungs of workers is important?

We’re trying a number of different tools. Our Temporary Worker Initiative really tried to focus on working with staffing agencies to make sure their workers, when they go into host employers, are protected. The most recent regulation, which is a requirement that employers will send us data about their injury logs, really is our use of the principles of behavioral economics to change the behavior of many employers who we won’t ever inspect, but by them recognizing that their injury experience will be public and therefore may have some repercussions for them either in terms of their customers or their employees or just their general reputation in terms of their commitment to safety and sustainability – as a result of that, they will try to improve their safety performance and protect workers.

S+H: It seems to get to the idea of trying to change workplace culture.

DM: Right. The ideal is to change culture, and we really hope to get there, but for many employers, we’re just trying to get them to comply with OSHA laws. In the long run, we see the only way to get to zero is to change culture, and there are a lot of employers who are on their way there and have made the commitment to get there, and we want to encourage that. But our focus is much more on those employers who right now manage workplaces where there are very serious hazards and workers are getting hurt. Look, there are at least 3 million workers who are injured every year on the job. That’s a very large number. So while culture will make a great difference, for most of those places of employment, they’re not even at the level of compliance.

S+H: The past few months have been busy for OSHA with final rules regarding silica and recordkeeping. What’s next for the agency?

DM: Right now, what we will be doing over the next few months is issuing our Safety and Health Management Program Guidelines in the final form. We issued the draft in December, I believe. We’re really starting a campaign around safety and health management systems, which gets to the idea of changing culture, and we think for some employers it will help them move there. For others, though, it will say, these are the steps you have to take just in the short run to begin to move in that direction to protect workers.

S+H: As the election approaches, how do you lay the groundwork for the next OSHA administrator? Is that something you consider?

DM: One thing I’ve seen is that OSHA is actually a very popular agency, and all the polling I’ve seen, when Americans are asked how they rate certain government functions, protecting workers in the workplace is actually rated very highly. It’s one of the highest-rated activities in the federal government. So I’m confident that Americans see that what we’re doing is important, and we have their support. So we’re not at this point doing anything differently because of the election or with the election season. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. We still have a few standards we plan to put out. We plan to put out our Walking Working Surfaces and Fall Protection – General Industry. We still plan to put out one more recordkeeping rule, which addresses the question of how long an employer must keep accurate records for. Those will come out in the next few months.

S+H: How about beryllium?

DM: I am personally very committed to issuing a final rule on beryllium. When I was at the energy department, I issued a final rule that is 10 times stronger than the OSHA standard, currently. It will be a big challenge for us to get this out during the Obama administration. We would like to do it, we’re committed to trying to do it, but I can’t promise that we’ll do it.

S+H: You mentioned the upcoming rule on Walking Working Surfaces and Personal Fall Protection Systems.

DM: That will come out. That’s next.

S+H: How gratifying is it to see a final rule take shape? In many cases, these rules can be years or even decades in the making.

DM: Yes, decades. We have people who have been working on this who have retired before seeing this rule come out. Walking Working Surfaces and Fall Protection – General Industry will have a big impact. We know that.

S+H: How does the changing nature of work, the so-called ‘gig economy,’ affect the way OSHA approaches worker safety?

DM: First of all, it’s very clear that workplaces now have workers who have very different relationships to employers than they did when the OSH Act was passed. If you go into almost any workplace now, there are temporary workers, there are contractors, there could be gig workers, and it means, at the minimum, there has to be active and planned communication between the various employers and workers to make sure everybody understands what’s going on in that workplace in order to be safe. We see that’s really a problem in many workplaces. We see that as being the base discussion, that for people to be protected, the changing nature of work relationships has to include better communication between employers and workers in these different relationships.

S+H: Some of the feedback we receive from our readers indicates that safety is treated with more respect now than it was years ago. You’re not perceived as “soft” if you want to be safe. Is that a fair assessment?

DM: I think so. My sense is that safety professionals are getting more respect, and it’s understood that workplace injuries are preventable. I think the “H” in OSHA has suffered – not because of that, but because the impact of exposures to chemicals isn’t so obvious. We can see when a worker has a piece of their body amputated or when they’ve fallen. The consequences are very clear. But the long-term impacts of chemical exposures are not as well-recognized, so we haven’t been able to address them so clearly.

But I think safety is better recognized, and it’s also this idea that if something is an occupational hazard, that’s acceptable as “part of the job,” that’s certainly disappearing. That’s a good thing.

S+H: When you look at the big picture, what is your greatest satisfaction from your tenure leading OSHA?

DM: The greatest satisfaction – in addition to working with OSHA staff, which is really committed, wonderful people – is focusing the agency on the most vulnerable workers and their worksites. Because we know that many of the workers being injured are afraid to raise their voice, and they’re invisible in society in some ways – the workers who are sent by staffing agencies or who are picked up in lines outside of Home Depot or Lowe’s. We added to our focus working with worker centers, working with staffing agencies, putting out material in many languages, so we can make sure that all workers in the United States have that same right.

S+H: What is your greatest regret?

DM: The greatest frustration has been the standards-setting process. It takes so long. I’m very proud that we were able to get out two regulations that I started. That’s very unusual for an OSHA administrator because the average for a standard is eight years, and usually quite a bit longer. So the two recordkeeping regulations were ones that I began in 2010, and they’ve come out: one in 2014 and one this year. I’m very proud of that. But the difficulty in addressing the chemical exposures and our antiquated system of protecting workers and the out-of-date permissible exposure limits has been a great frustration.

S+H: If you could give one piece of advice to the next OSHA administrator, what would it be?

DM: You have to be very imaginative and resourceful, to think about ways to look at problems differently, and to continue to be bold. One of the things that I’ve been very proud of is using resources that are not traditional OSHA ones. When we saw the very high rate of deaths among cell tower climbers, we reached out to the FCC, and together we took the issue on, and I think that’s had a big impact. [I would recommend] to look at those allies you could work with to try to get the word out and have a big impact because we can’t do this ourselves.

S+H: What are your future plans?

DM: I will be returning back to George Washington University. I will be teaching, doing some research and trying to keep involved in protecting America’s workers.

S+H: How is working in government different than working in academia?

DM: In the government, every day is packed with meetings and different challenges, and every day is different. In academia, beyond teaching, I tend to be involved in much more long-term projects, researching, writing. It’s a little quieter. It’s a little more solitary. It’s certainly less exciting, but I’m going to figure out ways that I can continue to have a big impact.

S+H: What would you like your legacy with OSHA to be?

DM: I’m very pleased with focusing OSHA on vulnerable workers, and also using some of our tools to impact more employers than we ever did. We know we have to keep doing inspections, but we also have to do other things that will change what’s going on in workplaces, even if we don’t inspect. That’s really what we have tried to do, and we’ve tried to be imaginative and bold in doing it.

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