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OSHA Head Says Wide Range of Tools Needed to Enforce Rules on Worker Safety

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Increasing numbers of U.S. employers are embracing the notion that protecting worker safety is good for business, David Michaels, head of the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said Jan. 4.

“It's hard for me to judge overall changes,” Michaels told BNA, “but I certainly have seen many employers recognize that managing for safety is useful not only to prevent injuries and fatalities, but in fact leads to a more profitable company. And I believe that's being embraced much more widely.”

For example, at a recent meeting of oil and gas companies, an executive of Netherlands-based chemical giant LyondellBasell, said, according to Michaels (who was paraphrasing), “The message from the top here is, you manage for safety, everything else follows.”

He cited Paul O'Neill, former chief executive of aluminum producer Alcoa who also served as President George W. Bush's Treasury secretary, as someone who embraced this philosophy.

“It's what ExxonMobil does,” Michaels added. “We see that that's effective, and I think it's putting to rest the canard that employers save money by exposing workers to hazards. In fact, well-managed, profitable companies manage for safety.”

Wide Range of Interventions

At the same time, however, Michaels said he recognizes that a large segment of American businesses have not accepted that doctrine.

“There are many, many other employers who are unaware of our standards, or have some idea that they might be making a mistake, or that there might be a violation, but for whatever reason don't feel like they need to abate that hazard immediately,” he said.

For that reason, the agency deploys “different tools for different types of employers, but many of those tools all focus on the same thing: saying not just, 'Abate hazards,' but really, 'Change what you're doing in the workplace in a way that makes a big difference and that will really reduce injury and illness,' ” Michaels said.

Among the tools he cited is the press release, which OSHA uses to publicize citations as a way of deterring other employers from violating the law.

Some employer groups have complained about OSHA's press releases, arguing that they defame companies before the allegations are proven. But Michaels defended OSHA's use of the press release, calling it “a common law enforcement technique to discourage others from getting in that same situation. And I think it's been effective. We have to look at the effectiveness of all our tools, and it's one of the arrows in our quiver.”

Michaels confirmed that OSHA will use NIOSH's diacetyl risk assessment in its own rulemaking, a step that is expected to shorten the lengthy rulemaking process. Diacetyl is a food flaoring that has been linked to lung disease in workers who inhale it.

Even though diacetyl is no longer a high-priority risk, because its use is largely contained, Michaels said more such collaborations with NIOSH will be forthcoming.

On the topic of rulemaking, Michaels said OSHA's relationship with the White House Office of Management and Budget has been fruitful.

“I think we work very closely together. I think we learn from each other. I think certainly with Cass Sunstein, we worked together very closely,” Michaels said, referring to the former chief of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

“We look forward to [Sunstein's] replacement,” he said. “Many of the things we're working on were influenced by Cass, in terms of the approach of behavioral economics: recognizing that it's better to encourage and incentivize action, rather than prescribe it.”

Hard to Reach Some Employers

When asked about his top frustrations on the job, Michaels pointed to the challenge of getting his message through to hard-to-reach employers.

“I spend a lot of time speaking to the converted, preaching to the choir,” he said. “I'm invited to many different groups of employers and trade associations, but the ones who invite me are the ones generally who already recognize that I'm there to help them get to the place they already know they want to get to. It's much harder to reach employers who aren't plugged into those associations and who don't understand the fact that they could be more profitable by being more safe.”

By Stephen Lee  

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