Ex-OSHA Chief Michaels Argues For Enforcement, Not Voluntary Compliance

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

In the renewal of a long-running partisan war over the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), former OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels found himself defending the embattled agency and its enforcement against corporate wrongdoers from attacks by Congress’ ruling Republicans, who once again argue for “voluntary” corporate compliance with job safety and health standards.

The conflict was joined at a Feb. 27 House Education and the Workforce subcommittee oversight hearing – the first in two years – over OSHA. Once again, the GOP and their business witnesses complained about OSHA’s rules, its micromanagement, its record-keeping requirements for on-the-job injuries and illnesses, and more.

And once again, business and its congressional puppets touted the agency’s “voluntary” program, which lets firms seek and get OSHA job safety advice – they don’t have to adopt it – in return for getting away virtually scot-free from inspections, as infrequent as those are.

That left Michaels, now a professor of public health at George Washington University, defending OSHA, while pointing out yet again that it’s underfunded and understaffed – so much so the average U.S. workplace would see an OSHA inspector once every 159 years.

“As assistant secretary,” heading OSHA for all eight years of the Democratic Obama administration, “I had to examine and evaluate the tools Congress gave OSHA,” he patiently explained. “There’s no question standards are the most efficient and effective” of the tools.

That’s because “standards improve workplace practices and conditions in the largest number of workplaces,” Michaels explained. In OSHA’s 47 years, and despite outdated standards, deaths on the job have fallen by three-quarters, he noted, even though the U.S. workforce has virtually doubled.


“It is not hyperbole to use the word ‘carnage’ to describe the hazardous conditions in the workplace before OSHA,” he said. In 1970, 14,000 workers were killed on the job, or 18 per 100,000, he noted. Last year it was 5,190, or 3.6 per 100,000, not counting those who die later from occupationally caused diseases, such as black lung, asbestosis and various cancers.

But standards must be coupled with effective enforcement, and that’s where Congress has hamstrung OSHA, Michaels said. Its budget has remained flat, at $550 million yearly, for almost a decade and its workforce has shrunk, he noted.

And it needs new and updated rules about the job hazards workers face, he told lawmakers. But there, Michaels said he ran into resistance.

"In Washington these days, many politicians rarely use the word ‘regulations’ without

prefacing it with the words ‘burdensome,’ or ‘jobs-killing.’’ Though Michaels did not name names, the rhetoric comes from the GOP and big business. It’s “deeply erroneous,” he said.

“It is more accurate to call OSHA standards ‘public health protections,’ because that is exactly what they do: Protect workers from injuries, illnesses and death. When you hear someone talk about ‘rolling back’ regulations, they’re really talking about endangering workers.”

But that’s what the Trump administration’s OSHA is doing, following the GOP president’s mandate to dump at least two federal rules for every one it issues. With OSHA taking at least seven years to investigate, gather evidence and issue a rule – a timeline Michaels said is an underestimate – Trump’s OSHA has made the problem worse.

Among the standards OSHA was working on, but has since yanked or postponed, are those cutting down worker exposure to respirable dust, stopping exposure to blood-borne pathogens – such as the Ebola virus – and preventing workers from being crushed to death by unsafe construction cranes.

And while California has a standard to force hospitals and nursing homes to reduce or eliminate client or patient violence against health care workers, OSHA has none. National Nurses United pushed for the California standards and for a national standard and Michaels launched an agency probe just before he left office. Nothing has been heard since, he said.

Michaels picked up support from Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the panel’s top Democrat. The Republicans were another matter.

“Many businesses must adjust operations to meet the new standards,” subcommittee chairman Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., said. “These compliance costs are especially difficult for small businesses…There are programs at OSHA designed to help businesses of all sizes in a proactive way.”

“Just last week, I visited the Cintas location in Mobile to celebrate their designation as an OSHA Voluntary Protection Program Star site. I continue to applaud the local employees for their commitment to workplace safety, and I look forward to hearing more about the VPP and other collaborative programs offered by OSHA.”

Left unsaid: Cintas became known for labor law-breaking and OSHA violations during a union organizing drive there years ago.

Byrne, forgetting workers, said the committee focused “on how OSHA can work more cooperatively with job creators, especially in the small businesses community, to expand its compliance assistance efforts.”