Thought Leadership


Dr. Michaels, don your flak jacket

December 4, 2009

The long wait is over. Last night, the U.S. Senate officially confirmed David Michaels, Ph.D, MPH, as assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.

The White House on Tuesday, July 28 announced President Obama’s intent to nominate Michaels, an epidemiologist and research professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC, to head OSHA. Due to the all-encompassing Capitol Hill battle over healthcare reform, some OSHA watchers did not expect Michaels to receive Senate confirmation until 2010.

Michaels’ confirmation comes with a caveat. According to the U.S. Senate web portal, his confirmation was approved “subject to the nominee’s commitment to respond to requests to appear and testify before any duly constituted committee of the Senate.”

Since Michaels did not face a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee prior to the committee approving his nomination and sending it to the full Senate on November 18, you can be sure at some point in 2010 Michaels will be trekking to Capitol Hill (at least once and probably many more times) to answer for OSHA’s new-found aggressive enforcement and revved up standards-setting, and any plans for another go at setting an ergonomics standard. Other hot-button issues: reports of widespread injury and illness under-reporting throughout industry, and the failings of state OSHA programs triggered by revelations of mismanagement of the Nevada state OSHA plan.

Michaels has been criticized by conservative bloggers for a supposed “anti-business” bias, and for allegedly wanting to ban guns from worksite premises. These attacks are based on Michaels’ extensive paper trail of journal articles, op-ed newspaper pieces, and blog posts. In the Internet Age and due to his academic background, Michaels for better or worse has the most extensive and accessible documentation of his positions and thinking of any OSHA chief in the agency’s history.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have fully availed themselves of Michaels’ many commentaries and articles, and pressed for a Senate committee hearing to question him on areas of concern. They will be sure to press on.

In fact, Michaels might want to don his flak jacket over the weekend. This coming Monday his boss, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, will unveil OSHA’s regulatory agenda.

Before the HELP committee’s approval, Michaels did provide senators with written answers to submitted questions.

Wrote Dr. Michaels: “There are many regulatory changes needed at OSHA. Three of the most important ones are:


  • Completing rulemaking on some of the proceedings that are currently underway, including silica, beryllium, cranes and derricks, and the globally harmonized system (GHS).


  • Promulgating a combustible dust standard.


  • Initiating rulemaking for an occupational safety and health program standard.”


Michaels has federal safety and health regulatory experience, serving as the Department of Energy’s Assistant Secretary for Environment, Health and Safety in the Clinton administration from 1998 through January, 2001. Michaels was the chief architect of DOE’s initiative to compensate workers in the nuclear weapons industry who developed cancer or lung disease as a result of exposure to radiation, beryllium and other hazards.

Acting OSHA chief Jordan Barab, who has been very vocal during his interim tenure signaling OSHA’s return to “cop on the beat” duty, aggressive enforcement and assertive standard-setting, will become Michaels’ top lieutenant at the agency.
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