AIHce 2010: New Frontiers in Science and Practice

May 26, 2010
OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels and NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard were special guests in the May 26 “AIHce Morning Show” general session at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce) in Denver, where they discussed pressing EHS issues and outlined what they hope their agencies can accomplish in the coming years.

Both Michaels and Howard supported science as a way to shape and drive occupational safety and health improvements. They also encouraged stakeholder input and expressed a desire for OSHA and NIOSH to collaborate on health and safety issues.

“David is the ninth assistant secretary I’ve worked with,” Howard said, “and I think our relationship – personally and professionally – couldn’t be better.” He added that NIOSH supports the “ambitious agenda” OSHA is proposing and that by working together, NIOSH and OSHA can build a stronger voice.

“I think NIOSH has a very expansive role to play, but it’s very much triggered by OSHA’s interest and activity,” Howard said. “When OSHA calls, we listen.”

Top Priorities

Michaels highlighted the four major areas he intends to focus on during his tenure as OSHA administrator: increasing the effectiveness of the agency’s enforcement; examining the way OSHA issues standards; developing an Injury and Illness Prevention Program; and improving and updating reporting and recordkeeping requirements. After listing these priorities, Michaels joked, “I have a modest agenda.”

As a science-based institute, Howard explained NIOSH’s core values include the relevance, quality and impact of its science.

“We want to make sure that what we’re doing in the institute is highly relevant to folks like you who practice [EHS],” he said. “If what we’re doing is not relevant to you, the eyes and ears of the workplace, that’s a problem.”

Injury and Illness Prevention Program

OSHA included an Injury and Prevention Program in its Spring 2010 regulatory agenda and is planning stakeholder meetings on the issue. During the AIHce session, Michaels called the program “a high priority” and stressed that it could help protect workers from hazards not covered by standards.

“We are not going to propose that every industry or employer have a management system,” Michaels clarified. “I think we’d be told it’s not up to OSHA to manage facilities. But we do know it’s up to OSHA to tell them how to manage injuries and illnesses. We believe that on a very simple level, it should be a requirement of workers to assess their workplace for hazards and abate those hazards. In simple terms, find and fix those hazards.”

Michaels added that the agency is unable to promulgate standards for every hazard that crops up, so a broader prevention program may be the way to go.

“Technology changes,” he acknowledged. “We have to essentially tell employers not just to look at standards, but the best way to protect people.”


Michaels explained that the agency has put together an internal OSHA task force to examine the question of outdated permissible exposure limits (PELs) and intends to gather stakeholder input. But Michaels and Howard both indicated, however, that addressing the issue would not be easy.

“Frankly, OSHA has not taken leadership role in this area, and needs to,” Michaels said. “But it will be tough, and we need to think of ways to do it productively and usefully.”

“From a NIOSH perspective, we’re very supportive of this effort,” Howard added. “I think all of us in the occupational health and safety community have to engage in this effort and participate in this process … it’s very difficult.”

Michaels considered that it may be more fruitful to focus on an Injury and Illness Prevention Program. “In some ways, that will increase the responsibility of industrial hygiene in general,” he said. “It requires a lot more creativity and wisdom.”

The Scientific Path

Michaels and Howard also discussed the importance of prevention through design; taking advantage of new technologies and social media platforms (including a possible “OSHApedia” to more quickly and easily distribute injury and illness information); offering new, virtual stakeholder meetings (the first one is upcoming on combustible dust); reaching out to smaller workplaces; and more.

The AIHce audience responded with spontaneous applause several times throughout the session and seemed generally receptive to what these leaders had to say. For his part, Howard made it a point to express his belief that OSHA is on the right path.

“How wonderful it is to hear an OSHA assistant secretary citing scientific literature,” Howard said of Michaels. “We’ve been waiting many years for this.”

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