Obama to Nominate David Michaels to Head OSHA

July 29, 2009
On July 28, President Barack Obama announced he would nominate David Michaels, Ph.D., MPH, to become the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.

Michaels is an epidemiologist and currently is research professor at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. He has conducted numerous studies of the health effects of occupational exposure to toxic chemicals, including asbestos, metals and solvents and has written extensively on science and regulatory policy.

From 1998 to 2001, Michaels served as assistant secretary of energy for Environment, Safety and Health, where he was responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers, neighboring communities and the environment surrounding the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities.

Michaels also was a contributor to The Pump Handle, a public health and occupational safety blog.

OSHA has been without a permanent administrator since Edwin Foulke Jr. resigned in November 2008. Thomas M. Stohler was named acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA at that time. In April 2009, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis named Jordan Barab, senior labor policy advisor for health and safety for the House Education and Labor Committee, OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary until a permanent administrator could be named.

“We’re delighted that a person with his credentials has been nominated,” said American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) President-elect Michael T. Brandt, DrPH, CIH, PMP, in an interview with EHS Today. “So from AIHA’s perspective, we’re happy that he’s been nominated and we look forward to getting to know him better and to help OSHA with their agenda, particularly to help him advance the science of practice in industrial hygiene.”

Seminario: A Good Direction

“We are very pleased with the nomination,” Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s director for safety and health, told EHS Today. “I think David Michaels is an excellent choice for this position. He really does bring a level of experience and leadership to the agency that is sorely needed. He also brings a deep commitment to worker protection.”

Seminario said Michaels’ experience with the Clinton administration as the assistant secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety and Health “gives him the ability to come in and move forward running a government program.” She added that during his time with the U.S. Department of Energy, Michaels demonstrated an ability to work in a bipartisan fashion on complex issues.

“I think he will bring that experience and commitment to OSHA and he’ll move it in a good direction,” she stated.

Seminario added that there is “a huge backlog of issues” that OSHA needs to address. She described the agency’s regulatory process during the last administration as an environment where “standards were shut down” and very few rules came out. She would like to see OSHA develop a broader-based initiative on safety and health programs.

“We want to see OSHA back in the business of protecting workers,” she said.

A Science Advocate

Tom Cecich, CSP, CIH, American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) vice president for the Council of Professional Affairs, told EHS Today he considers Michaels a strong advocate of science and the use of science in public policy.

“As a safety professional, I have to support and applaud that – trying to make the very best policy we can based on the best science,” Cecich said. “Of course, part of the challenge is that science is never quite absolute. It always evolves … [and] it has to be translated to engineering and economic terms. I think that becomes the challenge.”

Michaels’ publications and work as an academic, Cecich added, provide transparency.

“He has been a fairly prolific writer and his views are not hidden under a stone,” Cecich said. “His views and beliefs have been listed out there for people to read. There’s nothing to hide. He’s not an unknown and it’s hard for him to hide behind things because they’re out there.”

Assuming Michaels is confirmed, Cecich said he would like to see how the new OSHA administrator might influence how the agency accomplishes its mission.

“I think it will be interesting to see if he’s able to direct a long-established bureaucracy that’s been focused on an inspection and penalty culture in a direction that, quite honestly, Congress is trying to go even as we speak,” Cecich explained. “It will be interesting, based on his published writings, if he’s able to focus OSHA away from this command-and-control structure and to influence Congress that increasing the numbers of inspections penalties alone, as he states, is only going to have a minor impact on OSHA’s true mission of reducing injuries and illnesses.

“Certainly, from an ASSE perspective, we like to work with [Michaels] and facilitate moving in that direction,” added Cecich.

Miller: Restoring Vital Health, Safety Protections

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee, commented on Obama’s choice.

“Dr. Michaels' expertise and leadership is needed as OSHA continues to restore vital health and safety protections for America’s workers,” said Miller. “I look forward to working with Dr. Michaels and Secretary Solis to ensure the agency has the tools it needs to accomplish this mission.”

“Given the impressive credentials Dr. Michaels will bring as the OSHA administrator, I am confident that the initiatives launched by Secretary Solis to issue long overdue safety standards and bring back more vigorous enforcement of workplace safety and health standards will be realized,” said Woolsey.

Related Articles

EHS Today Executive Editor Sandy Smith reported on Michaels’ presentation, Doubt Is Their Product: Manufactured Uncertainty and Public Health, at AIHce 2009.

Michaels spoke to EHS Today Associate Editor Laura Walter about The Pump Handle and occupational safety blogs in the July 2008 feature story Surfing for Safety.

EHS Today selected Michaels as one of the 50 most influential EHS leaders in September 2008.

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