This ASSE photo shows OSHA chief David Michaels delivering the Plenary Session on June 14

OSHA Chief Calls for Criminal Penalties

BALTIMORE – Referring to ASSE as OSHA’s “older brother,” Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. David Michaels repeatedly said the agency welcomes and needs the help of industry safety professionals to tackle the most pressing issues he has encountered in his first six months as OSHA chief. Directing his comments to the Safety 2010 attendees filling the Baltimore Convention Center Ballroom for Monday’s afternoon Plenary Session, Michaels touched on everything from recent enforcement activity and “wrong-thinking” incentive programs to the need for updating Permissible Exposure Limits and the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

After outlining OSHA’s recent activities and what he called an “aggressive” regulatory agenda, Michaels said, “We know we do not have – nor will we ever have – enough inspectors to go to every workplace in the nation.” Instead, he called on employers to adopt the agency’s new enforcement strategy on their own: “To plan, to prevent, and to protect – that’s become our mantra,” he said. “It requires employers to implement injury and illness prevention programs that are tailor-made for their particular worksite, and it requires employers to be proactive, and not wait for OSHA to issue citations.”

Referring to the tailor-made programs as “I2P2” programs for short, Michaels noted that more than 5,000 men and women die on the job every year in the United States and thousands more become ill in later years from exposure to hazardous material such as asbestos, diacetyl, and bisphenol A. “This must stop,” he said.

Eliciting the loudest cheer of the session, he added, “It’s an unfortunate fact that monetary penalties just aren’t enough. We believe that nothing focuses the mind like the threat of doing time in prison, which is why we need criminal penalties for employers who are determined to gamble with their workers’ lives and consider it merely a cost of doing business when a worker dies on the job.”

Among other issues Michaels touched on, both in his introductory remarks and in response to videotaped questions and those sent in via text message during the session, was the need for better whistleblower protections, better incentive programs, better outreach to non-English speaking workers, and updated PELs. On the latter, he said, “Many of the PELs we’re using were outdated when they were adopted in 1968, because they’re based on 1950s science. Frankly, many of these PELs are an embarrassment to us.” He said that previously OSHA has not taken leadership on the issue and added, “But we need to.” He noted, however, that part of the challenge is coming up with a way to do it. “Individual rulemaking on a chemical-by-chemical basis takes an enormous amount of time. Even streamlining the process will take too long – it would take hundreds of years with today’s methods,” he said. “We need to come up with a different approach to this, and we need your help to find a solution.”

Inviting the safety professionals in the auditorium to join in and let their voice be heard was a common theme in Michaels’ session. He said that he and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis considered all of those in the room to be heroes. “Secretary Solis and I want you to know we know how hard you work,” he said. “You are workplace heroes for safety and health, making a difference every day. We know you need OSHA’s support just as we need yours. You protect workers and save lives, and that’s why they hire you, and we can help with that.”

Michaels said he just last week returned from his second trip in six weeks to the staging areas set up to deal with the Deepwater Horizon BP explosion. He noted that OSHA has had a presence there since the beginning of the disaster and that it continues to work in tandem with the U.S. Coast Guard, EPA, and BP itself during the cleanup. “You can count on seeing much more of this kind of cooperation between agencies,” he said, “pooling resources and efforts and speaking together with one voice.”

He added that while OSHA has the ability to write citations at the respective staging areas, the agency is more concerned at this point with bringing potential problems to the attention of BP officials and finding a solution straightaway. Among the lessons he said OSHA has already learned from the Gulf catastrophe, and that BP has admitted to, are that the potentials for disaster were grossly underestimated and that past injury rates are poor indicators of future catastrophic events. For example, he said, BP officials were on-hand on the ocean platform only shortly before the disaster struck, and the reason they were there was to celebrate the unit having just achieved the milestone of completing seven years of workplace safety and health.

Remarking upon other issues facing the agency, Michaels said the Global Harmonized System standard – which he referred to as a “non-controversial rule” – has received good comments and is moving along on target, attributing the slowness of the process to the administrative procedures involved. He said pretty much the same thing when asked about the progress of the proposed combustible dust standard, noting the many regulatory steps and surveys that still must be done and inviting those in the audience to be part of a virtual shareholder meeting on the subject that will take place in two weeks. He said his intent to put the addition of the MSD column back on the OSHA 300 Log should strictly not be seen as a first step toward a new ergonomics standard but rather as a measure to help employers know what’s going on in their workplaces.

In closing, Michaels said today’s OSHA is doing its best to modernize its methods, and he again invited the industry to help. He said the agency owes it to the workers who have fallen on the job to make sure similar incidents don’t take the lives of others. He said, “We need to embrace the spirit of Mother Jones, who said, ‘Mourn for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.’”

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