AIHce: Agency Heads Dish on Challenges, Goals

Agency challenges, complex emerging issues and goal-setting initiatives were some of the topics discussed by OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Director Dr. John Howard during a “morning talk show” session at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exposition (AIHce) in Philadelphia.

Among the hot topics brought up by the moderator and session attendees was the constraints that OSHA and NIOSH face in the current political climate – unlike in the climate of the early years of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, when many of the major safety and health standards were passed. Howard asserted that it is time for Congress and stakeholders to reexamine whether the OSH Act should be updated to address the issues and challenges of the 21st century.

“Certainly times have changed, if you look at the '70s when the [OSH] Act was new and 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.”

Nanotechnology, NIOSH Reorganization

Despite the current regulatory and political hurdles, Howard argued that NIOSH is making strides in addressing the safety and health challenges of the 21st century.

Nanotechnology, for example – an emerging topic in the occupational safety and health community – is fraught with unknowns, Howard noted, and coming up with regulations for risk control is not a possibility at the moment. However, NIOSH and other stakeholders are engaging in voluntary activities that look at best possible prevention practices – which for now, Howard said, are working well.

“This is an example of moving forward at a time that is difficult to move forward in a certain area,” Howard noted.

Another hot topic was the question of whether NIOSH should remain housed within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has been a subject of debate for several years. In April, AIHA President Frank Renshaw wrote to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., requesting a Government Accountability Office inquiry to examine the issue. (For more, read “AIHA: NIOSH Study Needed.”)

Some have suggested that NIOSH be housed within the Department of Labor. However, Howard told AIHce attendees that moving to the Department of Labor wouldn't be the best option for NIOSH, and he suggested further study of the issue to determine where the agency would be best situated.

OSHA at a “Crossroads”

Foulke stated that OSHA is at a “crossroads.”

Commenting on OSHA's 35th anniversary last year, Foulke said that the agency took the opportunity to take stock of where it is heading. For the first time in 17 years, according to Foulke, 250 OSHA senior managers from all points of the United States gathered to discuss where OSHA should be in 2020.

According to Foulke, the agency realized that it needs to pay close attention to succession planning, as 60 percent of OSHA's senior staff is near retirement age.

In reference to the ergonomics standard that was revoked by Congress in 2001, Foulke said that the agency's four-pronged ergonomics strategy – which espouses a combination of industry-specific and task-specific guidelines, outreach, enforcement and research – has thus far been effective in reducing musculoskeletal (MSD) disorders in the workplace. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao unveiled the four-pronged strategy in April 2002.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Foulke asserted. “MSD rates have been steadily declining since the program has been in place. We're reducing ergonomic injuries by 35 percent, which has been a significant drop.”

The Next 5 Years

When asked where OSHA and NIOSH will be in the next 5 years, Foulke and Howard answered that they would like their agencies to be much more enriched and focused than they are now.

Foulke said that he doesn't expect much change at OSHA, although he envisions an emphasis on emerging issues such as nanotechnology as well as on strong enforcement.

“I think we just have to be better at what we are doing,” Foulke said.

Howard said that he would like NIOSH to enrich its focus so that the agency can continue “ to bring research into practice.”

“In the next 5 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,” Howard said. “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.”

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