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OSHA's Michaels takes on MSD column critics, other topics (5/20)

May 20, 2011
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From the proposed I2P2 standard and MSD column to safety incentive programs, grain handling, hot weather danger and distracted driving, OSHA head Dr. David Michaels discussed a broad range of issues in his speech at AIHce 2011 on Wednesday.

With a staff of inspectors numerically not up to the task of overseeing millions of workplaces, an arsenal of small fines (as compared with those levied by other federal agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency) and violations that can be contested in lengthy appeals, OSHA is hard-pressed to fulfill its core mission of making America’s workplaces safer.

That, Michaels said, is why the agency is focusing its enforcement resources on particularly serious cases.

“We try to make a very loud noise about egregious cases,” he said. That “loud noise” includes issuing press releases and sometimes naming a violating company’s insurance carrier – tactics intended to bring unwanted publicity to offenders, in order to motivate them to make changes.

“We are still challenged in finding the right strategy, and we really need your help,” he told the industrial hygienists gathered for the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s (AIHA) year conference.

Special efforts -- like the fact sheet sent to thousands of grain handling facilities about the hazards of that industry, with tips on how to reduce them -- have yielded mixed results. “Last year, there were more grain handling entrapment deaths than in 30 years,” said Michaels. That included two Illinois teenagers – one of them only 14 years old – who suffocated in a grain bin. Another grain entrapment letter occurred at a different facility a few months later, and OSHA personnel who went to the scene found the fact sheet on the wall, its advice unheeded by the facility’s operator.

Michaels predicted an August release for a grain handling standard that will use a pictogram system to convey vital information – something expected to be very effective with non-English speaking or low literacy level workers.

Despite some resistance, Michaels said OSHA is making program in developing an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (I2P2) standard, with five stakeholder meetings completed and a small business input period beginning in June.

He addressed the controversy of the proposed musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) column. “The idea is that it can be counted better. We’ll have better statistics on MSDs. Employeers will take ownership of it and do something about it.

“It really makes no sense to me why this is such a big issue.”

Michaels blasted safety incentive programs that are based on the non-reporting of injuries, calling them one of his “pet peeves.” Effective safety incentive programs, he believes, should be based on hazard abatement and participation.

Water, rest and shade were Michaels’ prescriptions for worker safety during the hot summer months ahead. “Every summer, dozens of workers are killed across the U.S. from heat,” he observed. OSHA has fact sheets in English and Spanish available to employers, advising them of the health risks of prolonged exposure to heat, and how to avoid them.

A newer area of interest for OSHA is that of distracted driving, and the agency is partnering with the Department of Transportation and other agencies in an effort to educate the public about its dangers.

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