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End of the honeymoon for OSHA boss (6/23)

OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels made his first appearance at a national ASSE meeting last week in Baltimore. ISHN learned from sources that ASSE’s 32,000 members by and large like what they’ve seen from Dr. Michaels since he took over the agency earlier this year.

At last year’s meeting in San Antonio, Jordan Barab, then acting OSHA chief, scared the bejeezus out of some members with a fiery speech about “the new sheriff coming to town.” Barab, a cagey, edgy veteran of Capitol Hill and union politics, can be the kind of polarizing figure almost expected of a blogger, which Barab was with his “Confined Space” daily blog for years.

In contrast, Dr. Michaels cuts a less threatening, professorial image of one who enjoys give and take sessions with audiences.

But whatever honeymoon Dr. Michaels enjoy ended on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, as controversy grew over OSHA’s relations with BP and oversight of cleanup operations. In late May, Dr. Michaels wrote a letter to Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, commander of the Gulf incident response command, expressing strong concerns about BP’s lack of cooperation with the agency, and also BP’s seeming indifference to heat stress concerns for cleanup workers, worker lack of safety training, and BP’s reluctance to share accident information with OSHA. Dr. Michaels wrote to Admiral Allen that OSHA might begin enforcement actions against BP if relations with BP did not improve.

This reminds a number of occupational safety and health experts of the controversy surrounding then OSHA chief John Henshaw’s decision not to enforce agency standards during 9/11 Ground Zero rescue and recovery operations.

Shortly after issuing this warning, Dr. Michaels said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that BP was doing a far better job with the safety of cleanup operations. Concerns had been addressed. But skeptics and critics of BP’s response actions asked: How did BP turn around OSHA’s safety concerns so quickly?

Also, some experts are challenging OSHA’s decision not to require at least some cleanup workers to wear respirators. Some of these activists were among the OSHA chief’s early supporters.

Meanwhile, OSHA’s supposed natural adversaries when Democrats run the agency, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, have largely held their fire on OSHA affairs. That’s likely to change in 2011 or whenever the agency proposes a sweeping injury and illness prevention program.

Also, the BP narrative is still unfolding, with untold chapters on short- and long-term health effects presented by cleanup workers. This adds to the pressure on Dr. Michaels to follow the precautionary principle and err on the side of over-protection of cleanup workers.

In answer to a question from ISHN following his ASSE speech, Dr. Michaels said enforcement actions against BP “are absolutely not off the table.”

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