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Safety & Health Conversations: An Interview with Dr. David Michaels

Dr. David Michaels served as OSHA’s Assistant Secretary of Labor from December 2009 until January 2017, making him the longest running Assistant Secretary in OSHA history. The LHSFNA was fortunate enough to have Scott Schneider sit down with Dr. Michaels for a discussion about the future of the agency and the future of occupational safety and health in general.

[The interview below has been edited for length to fit the online format of Lifelines.]

Scott: Enforcement is a huge part of OSHA’s job and it’s very difficult. How do you target the worst workplaces with limited resources?

David: Just by announcing a new targeted program you strongly encourage a lot of employers to abate hazards through the threat of enforcement. Announcing a targeted program of dairy farmers in Wisconsin will lead hundreds of dairy farmers to look at their hazards and ultimately abate them, even if we only inspect a few workplaces.

In terms of how to make our enforcement more effective, hopefully with access to better data collected through the modernized injury tracking system, OSHA will have a better tool to identify the most hazardous workplaces.

Scott: Naming contractors in press releases was a big emphasis during your tenure, but hasn’t been so far under the new administration. What have you heard from employers about the impact they had?

David: During my tenure at OSHA, I often heard from attorneys who said their clients [the employers] would ask, “How do I make sure I’m not in an OSHA press release?” The attorneys would say make sure your workplaces are safe. I heard many times that our press releases had more impact than our fines.

Scott: I remember some insurance companies that were very upset about having their name land in a press release.

David: There is a study by an economist at Duke whose preliminary data show that our press releases had an impact on hazard abatement at workplaces near those we actually inspected. That’s exactly the sort of impact we want.

Scott: What about OSHA’s voluntary and cooperative programs? What impact do they have and do you think they are a good use of resources?

David: I’ve always thought there should be a balance. We need cooperative programs so we can point to employers who attest that working safely and embracing safety management is good for their workers and the firm’s productivity and profitability. But we don’t want to put extensive resources into that because those employers could certainly do that themselves. They don’t need OSHA to pat them on the back to make sure their workers are safe.

Scott: Let’s talk about mandatory injury and illness prevention programs. I think they are a great idea, but there’s always the worry that it becomes sort of a paper exercise. How can we ensure these programs are more substantive?

David: There’s no question that employers need systems in place to manage safety. We can’t have a system that relies on compliance with standards for individual hazards. We’re just never going to have standards on all of those and safety has to be more dynamic. Compliance with standards is static and it’s unsuccessful.

Scott: I recently read Mike Grabell’s piece in the New Yorker about working conditions for poultry workers and realized we’ve been talking about poultry plants for forty years. How is it possible these problems still exist?

David: First, because we have no ergonomics standard. The poultry industry has also been successful in fighting OSHA in court, so the agency isn’t able to open up individual incidents to an establishment-wide inspection.

Scott: There are consumer pressures to make sure chickens are treated right. Why can’t that same kind of public pressure be used to make sure workers are treated properly?

David: In Mike Grabell’s piece, Case Farms fired a worker after he lost his leg to an amputation on the job. The company’s website says “a core component to Case Farms quality commitment is to ensure the welfare and health of our chickens,” but there is no mention of workers. To improve conditions for workers, consumers need to raise these issues as well. Thousands of large firms issue annual sustainability reports and I’d like those to be more inclusive of worker safety issues.

In next month’s issue of Lifelines, the second half of Scott and David’s discussion will cover OSHA’s outdated permissible exposure limits and linking occupational hazards to environmental concerns to help ensure worker safety and health.

[Nick Fox]

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