Washington Update: Michaels outlines OSHA’s future agenda

By Kyle W. Morrison, senior associate editor

Reflecting on the accomplishments OSHA has achieved in the past three years, agency administrator David Michaels laid out an agenda for the upcoming years in which challenges await.

Speaking Feb. 4 at an “all-hands” meeting of OSHA employees, Michaels – who is staying on as OSHA chief during President Barack Obama’s second term – defended the agency’s work against critics who suggest regulations and federal enforcement hurt the economy and “kill jobs.”

“2012 was also a remarkable year, because as we were hard at work, we watched the empirical evidence continue to accumulate: OSHA inspections prevent injuries, and we do this without hurting employment or employer profitability,” he said in prepared remarks, citing three studies published last year.

Calling OSHA inspectors “heroes,” Michaels listed a number of incidents and cases in which agency employees stepped forward to prevent disaster or educate on safety. He noted a compliance officer who stopped operations in an unprotected trench in Ohio and the popularity of a Florida crane expert, along with several other OSHA staff members who have responded to routine inspections and disaster situations.

During Michaels’ three years as administrator, OSHA has launched a new Severe Violator Enforcement Program, issued three major rulemakings, and increased whistleblower protections and the number of significant and egregious enforcement cases.

But despite the self-applause, Michaels noted that the agency still faces plenty of challenges. OSHA has been lambasted by the Government Accountability Office and other critics for having decades-out-of-date permissible exposure limits for OSHA-regulated chemicals, as well as a lack of PELs for thousands of other substances.

Michaels acknowledged this shortfall while simultaneously pointing to the stringent regulatory process OSHA must adhere to and a desire to figure out how to work with that process. “One of our challenges is to develop new ways to approach these issues, both from the enforcement and standard-setting perspectives,” he said.

Beyond administrative challenges, a changing workforce and the economy will affect how the agency moves forward, Michaels said.

“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 that previous administrations did not have to face,” Michaels said.

OSHA is reaching out to vulnerable workers – including non-English speakers – through increased materials in additional languages and Susan Harwood grants, a popular but continually politically threatened training program. Temporary workers are being reached through labor and construction groups, and the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee was established to help improve protections for workers who report violations.

To help with a few of the initiatives the agency is developing, OSHA will need to become more diverse to better serve its populations and create innovative approaches to problems, Michaels stated. He said the agency is launching a multi-year initiative to ensure diversity inclusion throughout OSHA’s business operations, including recruitment and promotion.

The agency also is seeking to increase its use of data to better target high-hazard workplaces and evaluate the effectiveness of OSHA’s own strategies, according to Michaels. “The more complete and consistent we keep our data, the more useful it becomes for learning about hazards and protecting workers,” he said.

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

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