Edwin Foulke Jr., OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor, and John Howard, M.D., director of NIOSH, were on stage Wednesday — alongsideISHNeditor Dave Johnson — at the opening session of the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exposition (AIHce).

Johnson hosted a sometimes lighthearted talk-show-style session that included his top ten list about Philadelphia, home of AIHce 2007, complete with references to pop culture and inside jokes for the industrial hygienists and occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) experts in attendance. He interviewed the two safety and health industry leaders, asking them questions e-mailed in by session attendees prior to the show.

Johnson asked Foulke and Howard a variety of questions covering the guests’ personal philosophies of business and government relations between the agencies and industrial hygienists and OEHS professionals. Questions also focused on the future of both OSHA and NIOSH.

Howard noted some of the challenges with emerging issues as well as constraints NIOSH is facing. “Certainly times have changed. If you look at the ’70s when the (OSH) Act was new, a lot of things were possible,” Howard said. “Now some of those things take more time; there are more constraints that have been applied to many activities that occur both at OSHA and at NIOSH.”

Foulke discussed how he believes OSHA is at a crossroads and talked about the challenges facing the agency in the future and how it plans to approach issues, including how OSHA communicates its message. “We are trying to focus our message so we can get a clear and consistent message across to help improve workplace health and safety,” he said.

Where will the agencies be in the next five years?, Johnson asked. Don’t expect much change at OSHA, according to Foulke, though he did say there would be a focus on new and emerging issues like nanotechnology. “I think the overall premise with OSHA is [to] focus on fair and strong enforcement,” he said, citing things such as standards, compliance assistance, and education and training.

Said Howard: “In the next five years it’s extremely important for all of us to engage in real analysis of whether [the OSH] Act ... works well for the 21st century. And I think it’s a question the professionals have to deal with. We have a lot of issues in front of us … and we have a system that is written for another time.”

In an “Ask the Expert” session that followed the general session, attendees were able to ask their own questions of Foulke and Howard. Both leaders emphasized the importance of OEHS professionals getting involved in increasing workplace safety and health awareness. “You should all be ‘lobbyists,’” Howard said. “You should be seeking out how to participate in the [political] process.”