Michaels Discusses Sequester, Standards, and More

Posted May 21, 2013

By Ed Rutkowski

Montreal—In a wide-ranging, informal discussion at this morning’s AIHce General Session, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels shared his views on budget constraints, the regulatory process, and a host of public policy issues in workplace safety and health. The session was conducted in a “Meet the Press”-style format, with former OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, CIH, serving as host and questioner.

In response to questions about the sequester, Michaels did not mince words about the effects of the steep, congressionally mandated budget cuts. “It's a huge loss for us,” Michaels said. “We made the decision when the sequester came down to do everything we could not to furlough our staff. The consequence is that we have to cut everything else,” including enforcement, compliance assistance, and even attendance at meetings such as AIHce, which Michaels views as crucial for the long-term health of the agency.

Henshaw next raised the issue of enforcement, acknowledging the impact of budget cuts on OSHA workplace inspections but stating that “we can’t get to where we want to go with just enforcement.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Michaels said, adding, “We can’t enforce our way into safe workplaces.” The greater need, he said, was to repair the broken standards-setting process. “Our process is so intricate and long that even when businesses and unions have a good consensus on what to do, it still takes years” to issue a standard.

Asked for his views on OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), the current OSHA chief stated that he is committed to VPP but that he believes the program grew too quickly. VPP has been a controversial program since a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office revealed problems with OSHA’s administration of the program, which is meant to recognize companies for safety performance.

Michaels indicated that OSHA has addressed many of the issues with VPP and no longer allows companies that offer pay-based incentives for safety performance to participate. “We are very concerned that there are programs that discourage workers from reporting injuries,” Michaels said. “We think there are many ways you can incentivize safety and health, but [pay-based incentives] are not the way to go.”

Throughout the discussion, the rapport and respect between the current and former OSHA heads was obvious. Henshaw often framed his questions from the perspective of someone who has been in the middle of the political fray in a way that only a former agency head could appreciate. Michaels, for his part, was gracious and deferential to the man who was one of his predecessors as Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA.

Both men agreed that fixing the problems with OSHA’s regulatory process would require congressional action but that such a fix wouldn’t happen anytime soon. “Congress has difficulty passing legislation that's fundamental to the functioning of the US government right now, so it's hard to see that they'll pass something on OSHA this year,” Michaels said.

Ed Rutkowski is AIHA's managing editor, Periodicals, and editor in chief of The Synergist.