AIHce Morning Show: Howard and Michaels Explore New Developments, Challenges

By Ed Rutkowski and Kay Bechtold

Baltimore Convention Center, Inner Harbor Baltimore, Md. (May 24, 2016)—Attendees gathered early on Tuesday for the “AIHce Morning Show,” featuring prominent occupational and environmental health and safety agency leaders Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels, PhD, MPH, and NIOSH Director John Howard, MD, MPH, JD, LL. In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by AIHA President Daniel H. Anna, Phd, CIH, CSP, Michaels and Howard updated the audience on new developments and challenges at their respective agencies.

Prompted to identify new developments at OSHA, Michaels pointed to the agency’s recently published final rule on occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica, which had been in development for more than 15 years. The rule set a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air calculated as an eight-hour time-weighted average. But Michaels said that the silica rule “seems pretty far in the rearview mirror” because of the recently finalized injury tracking rule that will require employers in high-hazard industries to transmit to OSHA information about workplace injuries and illnesses, which employers already record on OSHA Forms 300, 300A, and 301. OSHA will collect injury data from more than 400,000 employers, remove all personally identifiable information from the data, and post it to the agency’s website.

In his detailed defense of the reporting rule, Michaels cited the impossibility of inspecting all of America’s six million workplaces and said that the rule is an efficient alternative way to improve worker protection. “We know from behavioral economics that if you publicize information, it changes behavior,” Michaels said. He likened the new rule’s requirements to the letter grading of New York City restaurants, which led to improvements in restaurant hygiene and decreased foodborne hospitalizations.

Howard credited Michaels for leading OSHA in a way that the framers of the Occupational Safety and Health Act originally intended—as a collaborative endeavor with NIOSH. “With David’s leadership of OSHA, NIOSH has had the relationship with OSHA that the framers had envisioned,” Howard said. “We're delighted when our science moves into practice by all of you, but we're especially thrilled when OSHA takes the science and makes it into a regulation.”

Referring to the typically long lag time between the issuance of a regulation and the scientific consensus supporting it—NIOSH’s recommendation for a 50 ug/m3 exposure limit for silica preceded OSHA’s new PEL by more than 40 years—Anna asked whether future regulations would be more responsive to research. Michaels was not optimistic. “The challenge is greater than ever,” he said, largely due to OSHA’s onerous substance-by-substance approach to rulemaking and its obligation to consider the feasibility of implementing controls when developing standards.

Howard, too, questioned the usefulness of the substance-by-substance approach. “You can make a nanomaterial out of every element in the periodic table,” he said, implying that promulgating a new standard for every form of a material would not be wise.

Both agencies have considered hazard banding as a possible alternative. Hazard banding, which groups similar chemicals together based on their toxicological properties and other considerations, has potential as a risk assessment tool for chemicals that do not have authoritative occupational exposure limits.

With many of OSHA’s PELs outdated, Michaels said that the agency is considering eliminating some PELs. “That would give us the opportunity to use the General Duty clause” of the OSH Act to help protect workers, Michaels said.

Asked to comment on how the current polarized political environment might affect their agencies, Michaels said that the American people’s views of OSHA are much more positive than conventional wisdom suggests. A poll by the Pew Research Foundation found that Americans across the political spectrum identify workplace safety as one of the federal government’s most important functions. Howard responded that recent infectious disease crises prove that Americans can work together when confronted with serious issues. “Everyone worked hard in safety and health and the public health community to prevent Ebola from coming in to the U.S. in a big way,” Howard said. “Zika is another example of when we’re going to have to pull together. It’s a problem that spans our differences, and so I think that we can come together on those types of issues, and Americans do that very well.”

Kay Bechtold is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737.

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist. He can be reached at (703) 846-0734.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.