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"OSHA At Forty": Assistant Secretary Michaels charts the future course (8/6)

August 6, 2010
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“In a July 19 letter to OSHA staff, Assistant Secretary David Michaels wrote: "After forty years, OSHA needs a fundamental transformation in the way we address workplace hazards, and in our relationship to employers and workers." His letter outlined the goals (identified by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis) for which OSHA shares responsibility with other Department of Labor agencies, i.e., securing safe and healthy workplaces, particularly in high-risk industries; and ensuring workers' voice in the workplace, and attached a list of strategies formulated by the Secretary for reforming worker protection at the Labor Department.”

This analysis was provided by Joanne Linhard, a consultant with ORC Worldwide, a global EHS consultancy with expertise on OSHA afffairs, based in Washington, DC. We thank ORC for allowing us to reprint her post here.

“Michaels outlined the following ways in which OSHA would transform itself while applying the Secretary's strategies:

“Stronger Enforcement: Some Employers Need Incentives to Do the Right Thing –

“Michaels noted that additional compliance officers would be hired and others' duties shifted to increase the number of inspections and referred to two recently announced policy changes: an alteration in the way penalties are calculated that will result in increased employer fines, and the new Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

“To assure that increased inspections and higher penalties becomes an effective deterrent, Michaels also stated that " 'regulation by shaming' may be the most effective means for OSHA to encourage elimination of life-threatening hazards and we will not hesitate to publicize the names of violators, especially when their actions place the safety and health of workers in danger. To do this, we will issue more hard-hitting press releases that explain more clearly why we cited a specific employer."

“Michaels also stated that the agency would "strive to ensure that our inspection activities include high-risk industries and employers who employ vulnerable, at-risk populations of workers… [by strengthening] relationships with unions, community groups and faith-based organizations, encouraging them to identify workplaces where vulnerable workers are at increased risk of injury or illness."

“In addition, Michaels said that the agency would increase its enforcement focus on ergonomic hazards as they "continue to be responsible for large numbers of serious musculoskeletal disorders among workers in many industries."

Ensure Workers Have a Voice –

“Among the means OSHA will use to accomplish this goals is by directing resources and efforts to reach out to the most vulnerable and hard to reach workers, including immigrants and non-English speakers, especially those employed in high hazard industries. OSHA's Regional and Area offices are already involved in implementing compliance assistance activities and in developing or enhancing relationships to facilitate closer ties between their offices and community-based organizations that can help reach vulnerable populations. OSHA will focus on training workers and their representatives on hazards, worker rights and how to request an OSHA inspection.

Further, compliance officers will assure that when training is required by OSHA standards, it is conducted in a language that workers can understand. Michaels said that OSHA "will strive to ensure that in every inspection, our compliance officers talk to workers privately and confidentially in a language they speak."

As OSHA's systems for protecting whistleblowers has not functioned well, Michaels said that OSHA had begun a comprehensive review of the Whistleblower Protection Program, in order to identify ways to strengthen it.

Refocus and Strengthen Our Compliance Assistance Programs –

“Among the activities that will be undertaken "to encourage the development and dissemination of tools, information and best practices that enable workers to understand the workplace hazards they face and how to use their rights to protect themselves, as well as enable employers to provide safe workplaces" OSHA plans to do the following:
  • Develop more compliance assistance materials that are accessible to workers without technical backgrounds, including some with limited English language literacy.
  • Materials materials will be focused on what workers need and presented in a way that workers can understand and use.
  • Strive to increase and strengthen the On-Site Consultation Service and other compliance assistance activities provided to small businesses.
  • Educational materials produced by OSHA, our partners in cooperative programs, and our Susan Harwood program grantees must be written in ways accessible to workers without technical backgrounds, including some with limited English.
  • OSHA will examine all existing cooperative programs, expanding and strengthening the effective ones and eliminating those that contribute little.
  • Increased worker participation in cooperative programs.


  • Change Workplace Culture: Employers Must "Find and Fix" Workplace Hazards –

    “Michaels stated that ‘ensuring that American workplaces are safe will require a paradigm shift, with employers going beyond simply attempting to meet OSHA standards, to implementing risk-based workplace injury and illness prevention programs.’

    Develop lnnovative Approaches to Addressing New (and Old) Hazards: Improve Intra-Agency Collaboration –

    “Writing that ‘"OSHA's process for issuing regulations is unworkable’ Michaels said that he had appointed an internal agency taskforce to examine this issue and reach out to stakeholders to explore alternatives. However, Michaels said that the agency cannot wait for a long-term solution to the problem, so it must develop new approaches to reducing exposures to the hazards. No examples of such approaches were provided.

    “Michaels also wrote that OSHA's directorates and field operations do not always work closely and cooperatively. ‘OSHA staff will make intra-agency collaboration a high priority.’ In addition, OSHA ‘will develop collaborative activities that complement and enhance the work of both OSHA and other federal agencies with whom we share the responsibility for safeguarding public health.’ Michaels cited increased collaboration with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Improve and Modernize Workplace Injury and Illness Tracking: Strengthen our Focus on Accurate Recordkeeping –

    “OSHA plans to propose ‘new regulations to bring OSHA's reporting requirements into the 21st century.’ While this is underway, ‘OSHA will continue to focus on ensuring that the OSHA recordkeeping requirements are met . . . and that injury and illness data reported by employers are accurate and not influenced by improper incentive and disincentive programs. Michaels said that the agency had ‘begun to engage stakeholders to help us examine this question and to assist us in distinguishing between programs that encourage safe work and those that discourage injured workers from reporting their injuries.’

    Strengthen OSHA's Use of Science –

    “Michaels said that OSHA would strengthen its ties to the scientific and public health communities, work more closely with NIOSH, and develop ways to better and more quickly incorporate scientific advances into its regulatory and compliance assistance activities. The Directorate of Technical Support and Emergency Management has been tasked to identify ways to address new and emerging hazards quickly, serving as a conduit of information from the scientific community to workers and employers.

    Strengthen State OSHA Plans –

    "’OSHA must continue to work closely with these plans, ensuring that they really are, as the law requires, at least as effective as the federal enforcement program.· Many state OSHA programs address challenges differently than we do, and there is much we can learn from their experience. At the same time, we must help state plans grow in strength and effectiveness, and embrace some of our new initiatives and approaches.’

    Conduct Our Work with Transparency, Openness, Integrity and Humility –

    “Among the many actions to be undertaken by the agency are:
    • A concerted effort to reach out to members and representatives of vulnerable populations whose voices are not normally heard.
    • Speaking to family of victims will become a regular component of OSHA's our investigative work. ‘We will strengthen our commitment to regular, meaningful contact with the families of injured workers.’
    • Expand efforts to share OSHA data with the public and to encourage employers, unions, activists and researchers to put these data to good use.
    • Creating new ways to communicate internally, including OSHApedia, an internal Wiki project to increase collaboration and eliminate stove piping across the Agency and to share knowledge about specific safety and health issues.
    • Regular re-examination of the effects of OSHA's efforts.“

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