Dr. David Michaels, Ph.D., MPH, assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health

OSH Act Must Be Modernized: Michaels

In Senate testimony today, OSHA's assistant secretary listed many updates that are needed to make his agency's inspectors an effective force for change. Does Congress have the will, or the daring, to reform the law?

U.S. safety and health professionals know well that some of the regulations governing workers' safety on the job are decades old. OSHA's assistant secretary, Dr. David Michaels, told the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee today just how outdated the OSH Act is and what should be changed in it to make his agency's inspectors an effective force for change. Given the political climate in Congress, relief may not be on the way.

Michaels' testimony will be posted on the OSHA Web site tomorrow. He made several suggestions:

  • Serious violations of the act that result in a death or serious bodily injury should be felonies.
  • Require employers to abate serious, willful, and repeat hazards after a citation is issued, whether or not the case is contested. Currently, abatement is not required during the contest period, which can last for years. Michaels testified that OSHA "has identified at least 30 cases between FY 1999 and FY 2009 where workers have been killed during the contest period after a citation was filed" and added, "The only situation worse than a worker being injured or killed on the job by a senseless and preventable hazard is having a second worker needlessly felled by the same hazard," according to OSHA's text of his prepared remarks.
  • Trenching fatalities and serious injuries should result in presumptive willful citations because the hazard of working in an unprotected trench is known to all construction owners, he said, adding that other violations should be treated likewise, such as workers doing work at great heights without fall protection.
  • Give OSHA inspectors authority to "tag" a hazard or workplace condition that poses an immediate danger of death or serious injury, which would require that employer to take immediate corrective action or shut down the operation. MSHA has such authority.
  • A repeat citation by OSHA is not possible when the earlier injury or fatality occurred, even in identical circumstances, at a workplace that is in a state plan jurisdiction. This gap should be remedied, Michaels said.
  • Cure two major omissions -- the lack of coverage by OSHA for public employees unless the state where they work chooses to do so, and OSHA's inability in some circumstances to protect contract workers. He recommended amending the OSH Act's general duty clause so it does not limit an employer's responsibility to providing safe working conditions only for "his employees."

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