Former OSHA, NIOSH Heads Say Federal Ergonomics Standard Unlikely

Discussing the future of OSHA and potential changes to the safety industry in general under Barack Obama during a Dec. 9 webinar sponsored by the American Society of Safety Engineers, former NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard and former OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor John Henshaw agreed that a return to a federal ergonomics standard similar to the one promulgated during the Clinton era was "unlikely."

"We need to do more to educate employers and workers on ergonomics," said Howard, who also is the former head of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. "Coming from California, the only state with an ergonomic program, I believe something needs to be done. One third of all workplace injuries are due to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). OSHA could do more in the area of education--provide employers with tools they can use to enable them to afford to address the risks to reduce this injury."

Henshaw and Howard agreed that Congress can help play a role in outlining the priorities for OSHA, but neither saw significant changes on the horizon for the agency, due primarily to the recession. "With this economic downturn, I believe we must do more to reach out to small and medium size businesses to show them the value of developing and implementing workplace safety programs," said Henshaw. "We need to sell it to them. Right now most large and smart companies already know the huge benefits and cost savings of developing and implementing occupational safety, health and environmental programs into the workplace, but we, including OSHA, really need to reach out and show them the benefits of investing in safety--the value it brings and the increased efficiency."

Howard added that changes are needed in the areas of standards development and generating more participation in the process by businesses. "The workplace has changed over the years," he said. "Unlike the 1970s and the years before and after, people aren't with the same company for decades any longer, many work as consultants and contractors. So as the work relationship changes, so too does the nature of the work. Maybe the OSH Act should be revisited and updated to reflect these changes.

"We need to be creative," Howard continued. "For instance, the new head of OSHA should meet with the head of Commerce in the next administration and say 'you need to incorporate an overall workplace safety, health, and environmental program for the proposed new infrastructure programs the President has called for'; this includes all the new highway and bridge construction projects. Start there and show them how. Also, look at many state OSHA programs, like the one in California, where they often take a hybrid approach when addressing workplace hazards."

Henshaw said federal OSHA, an agency with 2,200 employees, has been doing an excellent job. "OSHA is not ineffective; it could be more effective if there were less boundaries prohibiting OSHA from setting up standards--such as court decisions and more," he said. "OSHA can't write a standard for every risk."

Tom Cecich, CSP, CIH, of North Carolina, former chair of the ASSE Government Affairs Committee, moderated the webcast. "The next year has the potential to see the most significant changes in U.S. safety and health public policy in a generation," he said. "This webcast presented the views of two of the most respected leaders in the occupational safety, health, and environmental field. They've both been in federal safety and health leadership positions at the beginning of a new administration and have a lot of perspective about the changes we are likely to see."

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