OSHA at 40: New Challenges and New Directions

by Dr. David Michaels on August 30, 2010 · 2 comments

Dr. David Micheals addressed nearly 1,000 attendees at the opening session of the National Action Summit for the Latino Worker Health & Safety, held earlier this spring in Houston, TX.

Forty years ago, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, a seminal piece of legislation that has had a tremendous impact on the lives and safety of workers across the country. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was born and came of age protecting workers from death, injury and illness. In the four decades since, fatality and injury rates have dropped markedly. Enforcement of OSHA’s standards for asbestos, benzene, blood-borne pathogens and other health hazards have prevented countless cases of work-related disease. Dedicated OSHA staff have done excellent work, even during periods of stagnant budgets and political leadership that failed to value strong regulation.

Yet the sad truth is that the task of OSHA is far from complete, and indeed, recent years have witnessed a continuation of many of the same tragic instances of mismanagement, mistakes and indifference that result in deaths, illness and injury to workers who will never again go home from their place of employment to embrace their families.  As OSHA turns forty, it is clear to me that doing more of the same, better and with new resources, although necessary, is just not enough. OSHA needs a fundamental transformation in the way we address workplace hazards, and in our relationship to employers and workers.  A new paradigm must take root at this critical stage in the history of our agency.

One of OSHA’s goals must be to level the playing field, to ensure that responsible employers, who make the investment to protect their workers, are not undercut by the irresponsible ones who put short term gain ahead of the health of their employees. We intend to communicate a more effective deterrent to the boardrooms of employers who would sacrifice the lives of their workers to save a buck. We will enhance our enforcement through various means, and not hesitate to publicize the names of violators whose actions place the safety and health of workers in danger. We will ensure our enforcement activities are focused on high-risk industries and vulnerable at-risk populations of workers.

Recognizing that only knowledgeable and secure workers will be able to participate effectively in their employer’s safety and health programs, we will direct resources to reach out to the most vulnerable workers, and strengthen our whistleblower protection program. We will refocus and strengthen our compliance assistance programs and seek to change workplace culture so that employers find and fix workplace hazards before they result in injury or illness. We will develop innovative approaches to addressing hazards and improve intra-agency collaboration. We will modernize our incident tracking, strengthening our focus on accurate recordkeeping. We will enhance OSHA’s use of science and our partnership with State plans. Perhaps most importantly, we will continue to conduct our work with transparency, openness, integrity and humility.

At heart, OSHA’s job is to save lives, and everyone can help. I encourage you today to give OSHA the best birthday gift we could ask for, and spread the word about health and safety issues in the workplace. Together this Labor Day, let’s continue down the path we started four decades ago, towards a day when no-one will ever have to give up their safety or their health for a paycheck.

Dr. David Michaels is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lee Birkad September 2, 2010 at 7:40 pm

I am 72 years old and have been an engineer for 50 years. Those regulations that you refer to have probably cost more lives than the miniscule lives you’ve saved. Take for example asbestos which is found in nature in it’s natural state. by outlawing it, you have lost thousands of countless lives. The World Trade Center would not have collapsed if asbestos were used, etc. How many people have died in fires because of inferior fire-retardant substitutes. I was also a Engineering Officer in the U.S Navy and am convinced that lives were lost on the the USS Cole because of the forbidden use of asbsetos. Further is the loss of jobs by these rediculous restrictions that our manufacturing competition (foriegn) does not have to follow, which drive us out of competitive pricing. I finally had to retreat from manufacturing engineering to seek work in another industry because of these so-called safety regulations. If your job depended on these regulations you woud see how futile the effort actually is. Work in industry for a while and you will see what is realism. Leave us alone!

2 Carolynn Geeter February 24, 2011 at 2:15 pm

What can I do if I really feel all these policys are unfair. The place would you recommend I voice my concerns to the government? I believe many individuals could be serious about listening to what you need to say.

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