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Interview with a Regulator

The following is a Q&A between correspondent Steve Tuckey and David Michaels, the newly appointed assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In it, Michaels talks about his agency's tougher penalties, whether stricter enforcement leads to higher costs to employers and more.

This article accompanies OSHA's Sharper Teeth.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010
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The Occupational Health & Safety Administration seems to be enhancing its enforcement efforts. Can you briefly describe these new enforcement efforts?

OSHA is directing and will continue to direct its enforcement resources at those establishments that have the greatest incidence of injuries, illnesses and fatalities. To that end, we are looking at, and implementing, new National and Local Emphasis Programs to target these high-hazard establishments.

We want to direct enforcement resources to employers that have patterns of systemic violations. Hence, we are very close to launching OSHA's Serious Violators Enforcement Program that focuses on recalcitrant employers. We are also revising the agency's Corporate Settlement Directive, we launched a record-keeping National Emphasis Program and we are looking closely at possibly revising the reductions OSHA gives on penalties.

Do you expect much pushback from the business community, with regards to these new enforcement efforts, and how do you expect to counter it, if so?

No, I don't expect much pushback. I think the business community understands that its most valuable resource is its workers. Safe and healthy workers contribute to the success of the business. Most employers know this and understand that OSHA is directing its enforcement efforts at those establishments not meeting their obligations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Can you demonstrate causal links between workplace safety and productivity, and can you also demonstrate that stricter enforcement will not necessarily lead to inordinately higher business costs.

One of the most costly events that can happen to an employer is the death or serious injury of one or more of its workers. For example, BP had to pay more than a billion dollars in response to the 2005 Texas City explosion that killed 15 workers. To that extent, if an OSHA citation prevents a single fatality or serious injury, it's a good investment.

If you want to see actual examples of employers that are profiting by making prevention a priority, I would suggest you go onto our Web site at www.osha.gov and look at data from the Voluntary Protection Program, as well as our success stories related to employers that have implemented safety and health-management systems.

What I see from this is that employers that take worker safety and health seriously -- in that they comply with or go beyond OSHA standards and implement safety and health programs -- find their productivity increases, worker turnover decreases, workers' compensation costs decrease and so forth.

This administration is returning OSHA to the original intent of the OSH Act, a public health agency. Ultimately, OSHA penalties are a sign of failure. They mean that employers are not making their workplaces safe. We're moving toward tougher citations and penalties not simply to punish, but to provide a powerful incentive for employers to respect their workers, integrate protection into business operations and make prevention a priority.

Please describe the new emphasis on musculoskeletal disease in your efforts, and explain why you think the risk may have been downgraded before.

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders continue to be a major problem for American workers, and we are in the process of figuring out how best to address this problem. The first step we're taking is to propose revising our regulation on Recording and Reporting Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (record-keeping) to put back a column on the OSHA 300 Log that employers will check when recording work-related musculoskeletal disorders. This will enable employers, OSHA inspectors and policy-makers to better identify and address musculoskeletal disorders.

Have emphasis and enforcement efforts in workplace safety varied according to party dominance, such as looking at the Reagan era versus the Clinton era? And, if so, can you demonstrate more injuries and such? This is keeping in mind that both the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA are Nixon-era creations.

Enforcement and regulatory initiatives vary from administration to administration, depending on the focuses and types of businesses that are out there. Some administrations focus more on compliance assistance and cooperative programs than they do on enforcement or standard-setting.

This administration believes that compliance with OSHA regulations and other industry best practices saves lives, and it's our statutory obligation to ensure that these standards are followed. Along with our emphasis on standard-setting and enforcement, however, this administration will continue to emphasize compliance assistance.

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We think it is essential that workers -- especially immigrant workers and those who work in high-hazard work environments -- understand their rights under the law, as well as the hazards they face every day in the workplace. Employers also need information about how to comply with OSHA standards. We are focusing on developing compliance-assistance materials and programs to achieve these goals.

Why do you want to take on this challenge at this point in your career and what in your background makes you think you will be effective?

Ensuring the safety and health of America's working men and women has been my life's work, and I believe I can make the greatest contribution to this goal by moving OSHA forward. I'm an epidemiologist, which means I look at data to find patterns that indicate health and safety problems.

At OSHA, I will use my experience to prevent or reduce hazards that threaten the health and safety of working men and women. When you examine the more than 5,000 preventable worker deaths recorded in our nation every year, it is clear this is tragic, expensive, disruptive, wasteful and completely unnecessary. Also preventable are the thousands of work-related injuries and illnesses that occur annually.

I feel privileged to be on the front line of protecting America's workers. No one should have to die while trying to earn a living. No child should grow up without a mother or father; no parent should lose their child to a preventable workplace accident.

But I'm also committed to moving forward in a way that makes sense. Just recently, I spent the day listening to OSHA's stakeholders tell us what they want and need, and how OSHA can better fulfill its mandate to ensure safe workplaces for all American workers. And, this is just the beginning of our commitment to engaging the public in our decision-making. We are in the process of preparing our strategic goals and plans for the agency, and we want our stakeholders' feedback.

See also:

OSHA's Sharper Teeth

Ergonomics: The Next Battleground

Safety-Reporting Disincentives

OSHA Protections Enhanced

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