During his talk yesterday at AIHce 2011, OSHA head Dr. David Michaels dimmed the lights and played a video of the Secretary of Labor discussing how silicosis is preventable, and how steps must be taken to prevent it.

The labor secretary was Frances Perkins, speaking – and being filmed -- in 1937 about an occupational health disease that continues to cause and contribute to workers’ deaths – a disconnect which underscored Michaels’ main theme: that a great deal remains to be done to make America’s workplaces safer.

That mission is especially challenging given OSHA’s shrinking staff and ever-threatened budget.

“We do enforcement with a smaller and smaller workforce, relative to the size of the workforce we cover,” said Michaels, who added that getting employers to change behavior requires deterrence tactics and a range of tools. “Our strategy is to find the right mix.”

He identified standards as a key element in the agency’s arsenal. “Standards really are the game changers. When a standard is set, work practices change.”

Acknowledging that OSHA standards have become a political football, Michaels joked that people “might think the actual phrase is ‘job killing OSHA standards.’” He defended their use, citing statistics about pre-standard and post-standard fatalities for the Cotton Dust, Grain Handling, Excavation & Trenching, Bloodborne Pathogens and Needlesticks Safety and Prevention standards.

Michaels also said that some industries resist standards and predict dire consequences, but then manage to take the necessary steps to comply with them – without experiencing the predicted problems. As an example, he cited the vinyl chloride standard, which the chemical industry said was medically unnecessary, technically unfeasible and would cause the loss of 2.2 million jobs.

Michaels said that once the standard was passed, companies installed equipment to be able to meet the worker exposure requirements and did so without increasing production costs.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion – which killed 11 workers – precipitated a massive oil spill which could have claimed even more lives, among clean-up workers, if OSHA hadn’t been active in the process, said Michaels.

“The eleven (oil rig) workers killed were quickly forgotten because of the spill,” he said. “It would have been a national tragedy if workers were killed in the cleanup.”

OSHA personnel were in the 21 staging areas every day in enforcement/compliance mode, according to Michaels, making sure that the 45,000 people hired to clean up the oil remained safe, despite hot and humid conditions. Sometimes that meant 30-minutes-on, 30-minutes off shifts, and coordinating efforts with the Coast Guard and FEMA. “It was a great example of working together across agencies.”

Not everyone on the government payroll felt the spirit of cooperation, however.

“We caught a lot of flak,” said Michaels. “We’d get calls from Congress saying, ‘Why aren’t these workers working harder?’ And I’d have to explain, ‘We’re trying not to kill them.’”

Tomorrow: Part 2 of Michaels’ presentation at AIHce 2011: MSD column, incentive programs, distracted driving and heat.