When OSHA chief nominee David Michaels, Ph.D, MPH, currently an epidemiologist and research professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC, arrives at the agency after what will be probably a bruising confirmation process, given his extensive track record of criticizing what he considers industry’s manipulation of science in pursuit of profits, he will inherit what many in the workplace safety and health world see as a broken-down, beaten-down, dispirited and denuded bureaucracy.

Michaels comes to the job fully aware of the challenges confronting of him. In published articles he has written that the agency needs a new direction and philosophy, and he has outlined several sweeping objectives, including launching a national campaign to change how the public views workplace health and safety, developing a new electronic recordkeeping and reporting system, and issuing a standard setting requirements for workplace injury and illness prevention programs.

At the same time, his deputy, Jordan Barab, says OSHA is going to once again tackle ergonomics. Barab told 3,300 members of the American Society of Safety Engineers attending ASSE’s annual meeting in late June that OSHA needed “to confront the 60,000-pound elephant in the room: Ergonomics.

“Let's acknowledge a couple of obvious things about ‘ergo,’” said Barab. “First, it's a huge health and safety problem recognized by reliable science. Second, it's a huge political football that some very big players don't want to see on the field. Well, we're going to pick up that football and we're looking to team up with people who genuinely want to move beyond destructive politics and focus on the goal of worker safety and health. People are getting hurt by unnecessary muscle strains, repetitive motion injuries, and backbreaking behavior that can be reduced or eliminated with proven remedies. We can fix this.”

Old OSHA hands and veteran OSHA-watchers take such grand plans with a grain of salt. The window of opportunity for an OSHA chief and his leadership team to take major actions does not remain open for long. If Michaels gets behind his desk at OSHA say, in September, he first faces a learning curve on a host of standards-setting, enforcement, and cooperative programming issues.

Remember, as acting OSHA chief, Barab set the table for Michaels, indicating the agency will issue standards on combustible dust, silica, confined spaces in construction, cranes and derricks, diacetyl, and the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals — a rewrite of portions of the hazard communication standard.

Michaels will also need to get up to speed on OSHA’s internal review of its Voluntary Protection Program; a new enforcement initiative, the Severe Violators Enforcement Program; a forthcoming National Emphasis Program that will scrutinize the accuracy of industry injury and illness recordkeeping practices, and the potential for incentive programs to promote under-reporting; another National Emphasis Program targeting the process safety management practices of workplaces that release highly hazardous chemicals; OSHA’s preparations for a possible pandemic influenza outbreak; a burgeoning enforcement effort with the proposed addition of 130 inspectors and special attention going to federal stimulus infrastructure construction projects; and intensified investigations of whistleblower complaints supported by the proposed addition of 25 investigators.

We’ll pause here to let you catch your breath.

Behind the scenes and largely unreported work on this very aggressive agenda will consume most if not all of 2010. The following year, 2011, will be Michaels’ window for going public with standards proposals and perhaps the start of an implementation of a new electronic recordkeeping and reporting system, along with his national PR campaign to increase recognition of workplace safety and health issues. By 2012, the Obama administration will be in full election-year mode, which typically means steering clear of controversial regulatory issues and a lower profile for OSHA.

Michaels’ task would be easier if OSHA was a private enterprise and he came in as the new CEO, with the freedom to clear out deadwood personnel and other obstructionists, replaced at all levels of operation by new, hand-picked policy- and decision-makers. That’s how private companies, their performance and their organizational cultures, are turned around.


Many a new CEO has failed at turn-arounds. And success, including culture change, usually takes years.

That’s without the Congressional oversight, a phalanx of lobbyists, White House strings attached, occasional media glare, civil service employment protections, and long-ingrained labor-management wrangling the OSHA chief must deal with.

Michaels will benefit from a very supportive boss in Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and an infusion of cash and manpower — the fiscal year 2010 budget proposes an increase of $50.6 million for the agency, allowing the hiring of more than 200 new employees. He will also tap into a wellspring of pent-up demand on the part of a number of OSHA employees who felt stymied, either in standards-setting or enforcement, by years of what critics call the determined neglect of the Bush administration.

In Barab, Michaels has a combative, “into the breach” top lieutenant. Barab used the word “fight” four times in his ASSE speech and told the crowd: “The days of signing companies into VPP programs or alliances just to fill arbitrary goals, and the days of promoting alliances as a replacement for standards, are over. And the days of delaying rulemaking are over. And the days of starving OSHA's budget are over.”

Of course, such adamant talk begets equally emphatic opposition from an aroused business community, led in Washington by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Federation of Independent Business.

The fireworks spectacular over another ergonomics standard will be loud, long and incendiary.

Finally, Michaels needs the U.S. economy to revive in 2010 to remove the argument that burdened, bleeding businesses cannot afford aggressive regulation.

Realistically, the far-reaching plans that Solis, Michaels and Barab have for OSHA will require a second Obama term and an additional four years of Democratic control of Capitol Hill in order to even come close to accomplishing most of their aims.