Forcing OSHA to choose between focusing on enforcement or compliance assistance is “a false choice,” according to Dr. David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health and current professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University in Washington.

In testimony yesterday before a House subcommittee on workforce protections, Michaels said OSHA must do both enforcement and compliance assistance – and did both during the Obama administration.

“Promoting collaborative programs in place of standards and enforcement is simply not as effective in accomplishing OSHA’s vital mission: ensuring employers protect workers lives, their limbs and their loved ones.”

Michaels also urged lawmakers to increase penalties for willful violations of workplace safety standards that result in worker fatalities, because the existing penalties in such cases amount to misdemeanors, with jail time for company owners a rarity. Michaels pointed out that Canada and European countries have much stronger penalties for such violations.

Michaels called the overturn of the rule requiring employers to keep injury and illness records for five years is a “disaster” for workplace safety. Congress used the Congressional Review Act to nullify the rule, issued in 2016, which would have become effective Jan. 18, 2017.

Given the limits of OSHA’s resources and its inability to inspect workplaces on a timely basis, Michaels said record-keeping vital.

“The problem with that decision was OSHA is rarely there right when a worker is injured, and it takes time to issue a citation,” he said.

In speaking about the opioid crisis and its impact on workers, Michaels said that the workers comp system can play a useful role in addressing the epidemic, pointing out that some states offer lower workers comp rates to employers with good safety and health management systems.