Obama's OSHA Nominee Has His To-Do List Ready

David LaHoda , August 18, 2009

Maybe not to the extent of the recent Supreme Court nominee, but President Obama's selection of David Michaels, Ph.D., MPH, to lead OSHA is a departure from previous administrations.

Michaels is a scientist, an epidemiologist in fact, and author of the recently published book, Doubt is Their Product, that criticizes the business strategy of "manufacturing uncertainty," where polluters and the manufacturers of dangerous products successfully oppose public health and environmental regulations.

The nomination, as all nominations do, has its share of supporters (an editorial in the the New York Times called Michaels, "A Champion for Workers' Safety") and detractors (Pointof Law.com says, "Michaels has demonstrated unremitting hostility toward business, and he has run an advocacy group funded by trial lawyers and the left-wing benefactor George Soros").

The nomination requires Senate approval, and it might make for interesting entertainment on healthcare-related issues, given that the country may be in the throes of pandemic influenza and saddled with indecision on how to best protect healthcare workers, or under pressure from Congress to promulgate an aerosol transmissible disease standard similar to the one that became effective in California this month. The lingering issue of an ergonomics standard and the more recent drive for safe patient handing laws will also attract attention.

But on long range issues, Michaels has already given us view of his to-do list, at least the first page of it. In his essay on OSHA reform for the winter 2009 issue of The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health newsletter, Michaels listed these steps for the agency to take:

  1. Issue a workplace injury and illness prevention program requiring every employer to have in place a program aimed at reducing workplace hazards.
  2. Increase workplace health and safety capacity by reallocating funds for training grants.
  3. Develop a new electronic record-keeping and reporting system by junking the antiquated once-a-year-posting in favor of a real time system.
  4. Initiate a campaign to change the way the nation thinks about workplace safety by using mainstream media to get the OSHA message out.

He also wrote, ". . . the objective of the Obama Administration should not be better/smarter enforcement. A bold campaign to change the workplace culture of safety should be initiated. This can't happen unless workers are trained and given the opportunity to play an active role."

That's not exactly the prelude to the enforcement-fest that some experts predicted with the President's appointment of Jordan Barab, who is keeping Michaels' chair warm as interim director. Maybe a scientist is just what the OSHA needs right now.

David LaHoda is the HCPro managing editor of Medical Environment Update, OSHA Watch, and OSHA Healthcare Advisor, an online resource for everything OSHA related in healthcare.

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