Washington Update: A look back: Safety under the Obama administration

By Kyle W. Morrison, senior associate editor

By the time you read this column, the results of the Nov. 6 presidential election likely will be known. Either President Barack Obama will serve another four years in office, or Mitt Romney will have been given a chance at the helm.

Regardless of that outcome, occupational safety during Obama’s presidency has set many things into motion. Here’s a brief look back at what has occurred.

New standards and initiatives

  • Major finalized standards. OSHA’s Hazard Communication, Cranes and Derricks in Construction, and General Working Conditions for Shipyard Employment Standards were finalized during Obama’s term. (Promulgation of all three standards began before Obama took office.)
  • Injury and Illness Prevention Program Standard. Under the direction of OSHA administrator David Michaels, the agency has begun work on an Injury and Illness Prevention Program Standard, which would require most employers to institute a plan to identify and correct workplace hazards. It is arguably one of the more ambitious standards that OSHA has attempted in recent years.
  • Enforcement changes. In early 2010, OSHA replaced the Enhanced Enforcement Program with the Severe Violators Enforcement Program to focus on recalcitrant employers. Changes included nationwide inspections of related workplaces and targeting fall hazards and other hazards through National Emphasis Programs. The agency also changed its penalty assessment system to increase the average serious violation penalty, typically about $1,000, to up to $4,000.
  • Heat illness prevention. In summer 2011, OSHA launched a major heat illness prevention campaign, which included training and educational materials. The campaign continued during the 2012 summer season, using new technology such as application software to spread safety messages.

Major events

  • Deepwater Horizon. The Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers in April 2010 led to major reforms in offshore oil and gas oversight. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement originally was in charge of leasing, revenue collection and safety oversight but was subsequently split into separate agencies, including one dedicated solely to safety – the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
  • Upper Big Branch mine. Both the mining industry and the Mine Safety and Health Administration were heavily scrutinized following the deaths of 29 miners in the West Virginia mine in April 2010. Since then, MSHA has taken a much more aggressive stance by conducting strategic inspections on mines with safety issues and, for the first time, began seeking court-ordered injunctions against mines with a pattern of violations.


  • Delays. Although it is not unusual for agencies to miss self-imposed deadlines on when a proposed standard may be issued or when stakeholder meetings might be hosted, it is highly unusual for an administration to take a long time moving a standard through the review process conducted by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. An update to the Crystalline Silica Standard has been under review for nearly two years – unheard of considering review periods are supposed to last 90 days. Critics suggest the rule has problems; the Obama administration maintains the rule is complicated and OSHA is trying to get it right; and supporters blame politics, suggesting the administration is waiting for a more opportune time (i.e., not during an election) to issue the rule.?Other delayed standards include those on combustible dust, beryllium and diacetyl – all of which have been changed to “long-term action” items on OSHA’s agenda.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders column. OSHA originally proposed adding a dedicated column to employers’ form 300 logs to record MSD injuries. Employers currently are required to record such injuries, but under an “other” or generic “injury” column. Amid backlash from businesses, OSHA “temporarily” withdrew the rule in January 2011. OSHA, which supports the rule change to better gather more data on MSD injuries, intended to listen to concerns from businesses. However, a provision in the fiscal year 2012 budget prohibits the agency from working on this rule, effectively shelving it.
  • Noise interpretation. Similar to the MSD column, OSHA withdrew a noise interpretation proposal in January 2011. It would have reinterpreted hearing loss prevention requirements to require employers to use engineering and administration controls instead of hearing conservation programs. After backlash from the business community, OSHA abandoned the reinterpretation to focus on providing guidance on cheap and effective controls.
  • Youth work on farms. A proposed Department of Labor regulation would have revised the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit minors younger than 16 from performing hazardous job duties on farms. Lawmakers from rural states said the new restrictions would have substantive economic and social impacts on family farms, which employ both immediate and non-immediate relatives. The rule would have exempted youths working on a farm owned solely by a parent or guardian. DOL withdrew the rule, and Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis announced it would not be pursued again during Obama’s administration. Instead, Solis said, agencies would work with stakeholders and conduct more educational outreach efforts.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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