Safety Stakeholders Welcome Michaels to OSHA

Dec. 8, 2009
Following the Dec. 3 Senate confirmation of David Michaels, Ph.D., MPH, to become the next assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, EHS Today spoke to several safety and health association and union leaders to learn how they would receive the new OSHA administrator.

The word “finally” was used several times as these leaders expressed how glad they were to have a permanent OSHA administrator in place again.

“We’re very pleased to see that the confirmation has finally taken place,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at AFL-CIO. “David is an excellent choice to head the agency, and we look forward to him being sworn in and to move the agency forward to protect workers.”

“We’re happy it’s finally happened,” added Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment at United Steelworkers. “It took too long, but he’s there now, so we’re thrilled.”

American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) President C. Christopher Patton, CSP, told EHS Today that ASSE looked forward to working with Michaels. “We’re pleased that there’s finally a leadership team in place at OSHA so we can start to understand what direction we’re going in,” he said. “Secretary Solis has made it clear what her interests are, but it would be good to hear that from a permanent leadership team at OSHA.”

A Scientific Approach

“I think [Michaels] was a fine administrator when he was the assistant secretary of energy back in the Clinton years, and I think he’ll bring that managerial expertise and a lot of scientific knowledge to OSHA,” Wright explained. “David is a scientist. He’s especially strong on issues of scientific integrity, which is really critical in the standards-setting process, so we expect that he’ll do a wonderful job and we look forward to working with him.”

“I think what he will bring is a solid commitment to good science [and] professionalism,” said Seminario. Patton added that ASSE wants to ensure that OSHA standards are science-based and not politics-based, so Michaels therefore could be a good fit.

Seminario also pointed out that Michaels may help OSHA more actively engage the safety and health community.

“OSHA has been a very insular agency, particularly during the Bush administration. The agency needs to move forward on a whole host of problems, but it needs to do so in collaboration of the broader safety and health community. David has been very involved in working with different aspects of the safety and health community,” she said. “You will see a real difference of reaching out and involving the larger safety and health community in addressing these issues.

The Issues

Seminario described OSHA’s newly released regulatory agenda as “very ambitious” and “aggressive,” saying that it “signals that the Department of Labor is back in the business of protecting workers.”

In addition to some of the issues United Steelworkers is focusing on, such as the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), combustible dust, diacetyl and silica, Wright said he’d like to see OSHA develop a safety and health program standard. He explained that such a standard “would really give companies and workers guidance and some obligations with respect to designing a comprehensive safety and health program for a facility.”

While congratulating Michaels on his confirmation, American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) Cathy L. Cole, CIH, CSP, took the opportunity to point out one issue she particularly would like to see Michaels tackle.

“One of the issues we hope Dr. Michaels will address in his new role as assistant secretary is the need to update the Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs),” Cole said in a statement. “While we are aware that OSHA has limited resources available to update PELs on an individual basis, we do not believe the agency can sit idly by and not address the issue. If PELs are not able to be updated, we hope the agency will offer an alternative.”

The Transition

The safety and health leaders EHS Today spoke to were quick to point out that Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of OSHA, has done good work as the acting assistant secretary as OSHA awaited a permanent administrator.

“He’s done a terrific job of moving things forward,” Seminario said of Barab, “but there are some initiatives – such as developing a rule and a regulatory approach on safety and health programs, determining how to proceed on updating permissible exposure limits, working on legislation to enhance the Occupational Safety and Health Act – that we need an assistant secretary to lead. Those are strictly the kind of issues we look forward to working with David on.”

During a live Web chat on Dec. 7, Barab said the agency “is very excited” to have Michaels on board. “I have been privileged to serve the Secretary in my acting capacity and look forward to continuing to work on OSHA’s aggressive agenda,” Barab said.

In a separate Dec. 7 Web chat, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said Michaels would be sworn in within the week.

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