Top Names in Safety Share Timely Ideas

As the largest U.S. safety show, NSC's annual Congress and Expo usually attracts some of the most illustrious names in the industry. The event's 2009 edition was no different in this regard. The Occupational Keynote on Oct. 27 alone featured a panel consisting of acting OSHA chief Jordan Barab, NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard, and former OSHA head John Henshaw. University of Washington School of Public Health clinical professor Dr. Michael Silverstein served as moderator for the gathering, which focused on addressing "Occupational Safety and Health Under the Obama Administration." The panelists were in agreement that, though challenges exist, it is an era of progress and "moving forward," in general.

Barab said that, thanks to a 10 percent increase for OSHA under the Obama budget, the agency is now hiring and on the lookout for at least 100 new safety inspectors. "It's the most we've seen in a long time," Barab said of the increase. He also noted that DOL Secretary Hilda Solis had challenged the agency to increase its diversity so that it better reflected 21st Century America. And because about half of workplace fatalities happen in the construction industry, and half of those involve Hispanic workers, Barab promised a 2010 summit devoted to protecting the Latino workforce. Meanwhile, acknowledging that musculoskeletal injuries continue to be "the most serious problem facing American workers today," Barab said OSHA is looking to team with progressive companies--businesses with "spine and spirit"--in its work on forming an effective and lasting ergonomics standard. "We haven’t yet decided how we're going to approach it," he said. "We need to figure out how to move the ergonomic practices used successfully at the best companies to the rest, those who haven't quite seen how to incorporate it." On that front, as well as others facing the agency, Barab was optimistic, even echoing Obama's mantra at one point, saying, "Yes we can--we can work together to reach new solutions and accomplish new initiatives."

Howard, who also is the coordinator of the World Trade Center Health Program, likewise said that although the nation faces "a list of challenges in 2009," it remains an "exciting time." He wasted no time in noting that the current H1N1 situation is one of those challenges and said it is absolutely critical that institutions engage in "global risk assessment-type thinking." He emphasized that a significant supply shortage of N95 respirators is likely through the fall and winter, for example, and encouraged workplaces to engage in risk-assessment calculations and advanced planning, to consider acquiring reusable elastomeric respirators or PAPRs, and, where shortages exist, to deploy "prioritized respirator use logic," selectively doling respirators to those who need them most based on the intensity and duration of exposure to the hazards. "Clearly some advanced planning is necessary," he said, adding that in situations where it is impossible to acquire or maintain enough respirators, health care administrators may, after doing all they can to document their efforts to obtain the respirators, possibly have to resort to surgical face masks for some modicum of protection. "They are not fit tested and cannot completely prevent exposure, but they are better than nothing when nothing else exists," he said. "I do not think we can return to an era when health care workers' exposure to transmissible diseases is written off as exposure to 'diseases of life,' as worker's comp refers to it. We need to take care of the sick and those who care for the sick."

Henshaw, who headed OSHA from August 2001 through December 2004, said that while the agency remains "the world's best act at protecting workers," the legislation that created it, the OSH Act of 1970, is "woefully out of date," and he urged Congress to "step forward" on updating it. "Our rulemaking process needs to be brought up to speed, and it needs to be depoliticized, to the extent that's possible, and we need Congress's help."

Meanwhile, while OSHA's enforcement strategy needs to be "strong, fair, and effective," enforcement should be only part of the agency's overall strategy, he said. OSHA should follow EPA's model of teaming with the Department of Justice and reaching settlements with fined companies, Henshaw added. Those companies typically then agree to make improvements and undergo routine audits.

"It's an important leverage the agency could use to get more sustainable results," Henshaw said. He also emphasized the need for OSHA to preserve and even amp up its Voluntary Protection Programs, which foster cooperative relationships among management, labor, and OSHA at worksites that have implemented comprehensive safety and health programs. "VPP needs to be improved, no doubt, but we need it there," he said. "VPP companies are the ones leading in best practices, and we have to encourage those who are doing the right things to do them even better."

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