NSC: Occupational Safety and Health Under the Obama Administration

In a panel discussion at the National Safety Council (NSC) 2009 Congress and Expo in Orlando, Fla., Jordan Barab, acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, former OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, MPH, CIH, and NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D., JD, MPH, came together to discuss what the agency has accomplished so far and what critical areas it must focus on under the Obama administration.

Just one year ago, at the 2008 NSC Congress and Expo, Barab joined a panel discussing the future of OSHA at a time when the 2008 presidential race had not yet been run. Now, as acting assistance secretary of labor for OSHA, he’s in the position to comment from the other side of the fence.

“We are a regulatory agency in the first place, and under the Obama administration, we are going to act like one,” Barab said.

Barab pointed out that the agency is back in the standard-writing enforcement business; is addressing long-awaited standards, including silica and diacetyl; issued a final rule in September updating PPE consensus standards; issued a proposal to align OSHA’s hazcom standard with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS); released a report on the Nevada state program; and is committed to publishing a cranes and derricks standard within the coming months.

“We’re really trying to move this agency from reaction from prevention,” Barab said. “Our goal is to make workplaces safer, not just issue citations and standards.”

Barab explained that under the Obama administration, OSHA once again is talking to organized labor as well as looking for allies in the environmental and progressive business communities. He said the agency has an “open ears, open doors” approach and is focused on ensuring all workers and businesses have the tools they need to create safe workplaces.

He also touched on the issue of musculoskeletal injuries and the question of a possible ergonomics standard. While he pointed out that these injuries continue to be one of the most serious problems facing workers, he told attendees that OSHA likely will not re-implement the old ergonomics standard and will instead address the ergonomics issue in discussion.

“It’s also a huge political issue and we don’t want to get mired down in it,” he explained.

Henshaw: A Balanced OSHA

Former OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, currently president of Henshaw and Associates Inc., offered his expertise on what direction OSHA should take under the current administration.

“I think it’s critically important that OSHA remain balanced,” said Henshaw. “Our job is not just to enforce, it’s to save lives and reduce injuries and illnesses. And so OSHA needs to find the right array of tools to make sure that employer who fails to comply complies.”

He added that OSHA must evaluate its partnerships, alliances and the VPP program. These initiatives, he said, must be performance and results-based to reduce injuries, illnesses and fatalities.

“We have to encourage those who are doing the right thing to do even better,” Henshaw said. “We have to encourage those to go beyond. I’m a strong supporter in VPP. Without a doubt, it needs to be improved and strengthened, [to] make it as strong as you can possibility make it. They [VPP companies] are leading the advancement of best practices.”

John Howard, who called VPP a “fabulous program,” agreed it must be evaluated. “We have to look at a lot of cooperative programs OSHA is doing, figure out evaluation criteria and see they are performing well,” he said. (To read what Howard had to say during the panel discussion about H1N1 and health care worker protections, read NSC: Protecting Health Care Workers from the H1N1 Threat).

Henshaw also stressed that the “woefully out of date” OSH Act must be updated, criminal provisions must be strengthened, and the “public sector deficiency” must be addressed to extend occupational safety protections to public employees.

“OSHA has a number of very serious, very difficult challenges ahead of us, even more difficult than I understood when I got there,” Barab admitted in his closing statements. But he doesn’t think OSHA should face those challenges alone, and hopes to work together with employers and safety professionals to get input and foster discussion.

“America’s most precious resource is a skilled, healthy worker,” Barab said. “If we all work together to ensure every worker has a safe workplace, then everyone wins.”

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