OSHA’s David Michaels: ‘Enforcement Has a Real Impact’

By Oct 21, 2014

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) head David Michaels explained the agency’s rationale behind what critics have called “regulation by shaming” during the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Fall Conference held Oct. 18-22, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

With one of the smallest agency budgets and approximately 2,500 inspectors, Michaels told the crowd of industrial hygiene and occupational safety and health practitioners on Oct. 20 that OSHA has to employ a variety of strategies to accomplish its challenging mission of protecting workers at over 8 million workplaces.

“We have an incredibly wide-ranging mission, covering everything from nail guns to nail salons,” he said, and this must be completed with about the same number of staff as the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversees the nation’s mines. “We cover everything else,” he said.

So distributing resources is key. “If all we do is eliminate the hazards of the places we inspect, then we’re missing 95 percent of employers. So we try to do our inspections in ways that impact a whole industry, or a region. That’s why we do the press releases, that’s why we do outreach. We know if employers see their neighbor or their competition get inspected and issued a fine, they think, ‘Maybe that’s a hazard I better take care of.’ ”

OSHA conducts about 40,000 inspections annually. “We know we’re known for enforcement. Our fines and press releases get all the attention. We know that, and we know that enforcement has a real impact on workplaces. OSHA really does save lives. Our inspections have an impact,” he said.

Michaels said the agency makes a concerted effort to publicize enforcement actions, comparing OSHA to someone encountering a mountain lion. “When you’re in the Southwest desert and you see a mountain lion, what are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to try to make yourself look big. That’s our philosophy. We’re a small agency, but we’ve got to try to look like a big agency because it’s a big country and there’s lots of hazards.”

OSHA’s Near-Term Focus

Michaels provided attendees with an agency update. Current key issues include:

*Temporary workers. The agency will continue to focus on the safety and health of temporary workers.

*Reporting changes. OSHA announced a final rule Sept. 11, 2014, revising the requirements for reporting work-related fatality, injury and illness information. The rule retains the requirement to report all fatalities to OSHA within eight hours, but amends the regulation to require employers to report all work-related in-patient hospitalizations as well as amputations and losses of an eye to OSHA within 24 hours. The changes go into effect Jan. 1, 2015, for workplaces under federal OSHA jurisdiction.

*Hazardous chemical management. OSHA released a request for information Oct. 10, 2014, seeking public comment on strategies for managing chemical hazards in the workplace and approaches to updating chemical permissible exposure limits (PELs). “Our PELs are not at a safe level,” Michaels said. “Top employers like Dow don’t use them. They do their own toxicology, their own research. If you want to protect workers, you have to use your own.”

*Occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica.OSHA’s proposed PEL—50 micrograms per cubic meter of air for all industry sectors—was first recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 1974. The proposal also contains ancillary provisions—updated requirements for exposure assessment and control, respiratory protection, medical surveillance, hazard communication, and record-keeping—to match the lowered PEL. Michaels said the agency is looking to finalize this controversial rule within the next two years.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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