NSC: OSHA, MSHA, NIOSH Leaders Discuss the State of Occupational Safety

In an Oct. 5 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress occupational keynote, OSHA Administrator David Michaels, NIOSH Director John Howard and MSHA Administrator Joe Main discussed their priorities and goals for occupational safety and health.

Michaels kicked off the presentation by highlighting several of OSHA’s recent actions, including the emerging green jobs movement, exploring updating permissible exposure limits (PELs), addressing Latino work force challenges, creating a new program on distracted driving, protecting Gulf Coast oil spill cleanup workers and more. “OSHA is coordinating efforts to benefit people,” he told the NSC audience.

Michaels acknowledged, however, that OSHA cannot police every work force. Instead, the agency must “think of creative ways to have a bigger impact. The key to worker safety and health is focusing on prevention.”

To that end, Michaels pointed to the agency’s recent plan for a proposed Injury and Illness Prevention Program, which would require employers to find and fix the hazards in their workplaces. This initiative, Michaels said, “represents a fundamental change in how OSHA will work and also how employers and OSHA will cooperate in safety. Instead of waiting for a fatality or tragedy, employers must come up with a comprehensive plan to find hazards and then fix them.”

While Michaels extolled the value of such programs and pointed out that they can reduce costs, improve safety and contribute to a happier, more productive work force, he anticipated that the business community and trade organizations would oppose it.

“There are companies that treat workers as disposable. Those companies essentially are at a huge competitive advantage over those that play by the rules,” Michaels said. “We want to hear from you what works. Trade associations are going to tell you it’s crazy, that OSHA should not be telling us what to do … [so] speak up when we hold public meetings.”

Michaels also said that OSHA is reaching out for stakeholder input and working on new, creative ways to address the need to update PELs. He hinted that he “hopes to have an exciting announcement” about PELs soon.

Howard: Vaccination is Key

NIOSH Director John Howard used his time during the keynote to stress the importance of influenza vaccination and reminded attendees that Oct. 1 marks the beginning of flu season. Fortunately, he added, a lot of vaccine is available and only one shot, instead of two, will be necessary this year.

“Vaccination is an important part of a comprehensive infectious disease prevention program,” Howard said. “Everyone in this room, no matter who you work for, ask them if they have an infectious or transmissible disease prevention program.”

Howard outlined three obstacles to vaccination:

  • The belief that vaccination is not safe.
  • The belief that vaccination is not effective.
  • If vaccination is not available in the workplace, employees may be unwilling to take time off work to receive the vaccine.

Howard acknowledged that no vaccine is 100 percent effective. Immunization, however, creates “herd immunity” so the virus is unable to propagate and eventually dies out. This especially protects vulnerable populations, such as the elderly.

He stopped short, however, of recommending that health care personnel should undergo mandatory vaccination. “We want to make sure that everyone steps up voluntarily to get their vaccine this year and everyone will be safer as a result,” he explained.

Finally, Howard emphasized that nanotechnology is an emerging issue that requires attention today.

“Unless we define the risk for nanomaterials at this present time, we risk … another asbestos problem. I believe it will be a significant issue for our culture and our society,” Howard asserted. “We have to define that risk now or risk a lot of serious illness and injuries.”

Focus on Black Lung

“On April 5, my safety in this country had a different meaning,” said MSHA Administrator Joe Main. “That was the day an explosion went through a coal mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners.”

Since the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, Main said that “it’s been a busy time” at MSHA, with an ambitious regulatory agenda that includes a proposed rule requiring underground mining operators to conduct pre-shift evaluations; a movement to bring about the greatest reform since the 1969 Coal Mine Act; action on a respirable dust program in the mining industry; and more.

MSHA also is working on a strategy to re-educate miners and operators on both the impacts of breathing respirable dust and various preventative controls.

“When I took over as head of MSHA, one of the things I made a decision we had to do is end black lung disease,” Main said. “A regulation will be issued very shortly, within a matter of days, one we think will improve quality of life for miners. We believe we have the tools, we believe we have a good understanding of what it takes to protect miners from this disease.”

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