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Questions for an Increasingly “Irrelevant” OSHA

Does OSHA need to “resurrect the process” for developing standards? Yes, says former NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D., J.D., who said in a world increasingly looking to the European Union for standards leadership, OSHA runs the risk of becoming “irrelevant.”

Howard, speaking at a symposium on “The Future of Occupational Safety and Health” sponsored by the International Safety Equipment Association, said the main issue contributing to the charge of irrelevance against OSHA is “the lack of connectivity between the current causes of worker injury, illness and death, and the absence of standards that address such causes.”

Howard pointed out a bevy of possible standards projects, and while he didn’t advocate any specific standards, his list is worth examining, if only because he is one of the names being actively promoted as the next OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor. His possible “to-do list” includes a risk-based occupational safety and health management system regulation, musculoskeletal disorder prevention, motor vehicle accident prevention, air contaminants, infectious bioaerosols, combustible dust, diacetyl, emerging issues such as prevention through design, nanotechnology, genetics-in-the-workplace and organization at work, and even exposure assessment, medical surveillance or training.

Probably few people in government are as aware as Howard of how much work would be involved in having OSHA develop just one of these standards, yet alone several. If the Obama administration shows the stomach for major standards-setting of this magnitude, it would have to greatly increase the resources devoted to standards development. Where would that money come from in a cash-strapped budget environment? One possible hint – Howard noted that some questions the next OSHA team might ask include: “How much of the OSHA enforcement budget is expended on compliance assistance versus enforcement? How many enforcement personnel are actually performing compliance assistance? What have the results been? What is the budgetary impact of supporting the 2,000, or more, VPP entities? Has anyone done a program evaluation of what the return is on that budgetary investment?”

Howard posited all of these questions in the context of a globalism that he said will involve both governmental and non-governmental safety codes. “Voluntary labor safety and health codes can be more readily adapted to particular problems, industries, enterprises and spatial movement of work; they are less controversial than national codes and therefore represent a more effective learning process than do rules adopted through prolonged adversarial processes; and often serve as the basis for mandatory standards at a subsequent time.” Peering into the future 25 years, Howard concluded: “By 2033, a framework for global governance of occupational safety and health will emerge, but it is not yet clear if the US will be an active participant. If not, it will be our loss and the world’s loss.”

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