David Michaels of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration: NewPublicHealth Q&A

Nov 2, 2011, 7:16 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

David_Michaels David Michaels, Occupational Safety and Health Administration

David Michaels, PhD, MPH, Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and a former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation health policy fellow, addressed the APHA annual meeting at the closing session today, focusing on workplace injuries and making workplaces safer and healthier. NewPublicHealth caught up with Dr. Michaels to talk about workplace safety successes and a look idea to what's on tap for the agency.

NewPublicHealth: What’s the critical issue for OSHA?

Dr. Michaels: Workplace injury rates have fallen but they’re still far too high. We’re down to twelve deaths a day but still twelve deaths are too many. And so, we are focusing our activities in ways to have a very broad impact and to reduce injuries, illnesses and fatalities across the board, and the way to do that is to encourage employers to develop injury and illness prevention programs, to assess the hazards in the workplace and fix them. In other words, we’re saying employers should really go past simply compliance with OSHA standards to taking a more systemic view of their workplace. We know that that’s successful. There are thousands of companies around the country that are doing this now as part of OSHA voluntary program and they will tell you that these programs not only reduce injuries but they save money.

NPH: Do you have any successes you can point to already?

Dr. Michaels: Oh, there’s no question. OSHA look-backs have shown very clearly what we say on a regular basis, which is OSHA regulations don’t kill jobs, they stop jobs from killing workers. So there’s rhetoric out there that regulations hurt jobs, and the opposite is true. The best example may be the blood-borne disease standard. It was very controversial when OSHA implemented it and we got a lot of pushback from health care providers who felt they shouldn’t have to wear gloves when dealing with sharps and needles. But because of the requirements which led to changes in work practices in hospitals and healthcare facilities, hepatitis B has been virtually eliminated as an occupational illness.

NPH: What are you looking ahead to?

Dr. Michaels: A big standard that we’re working on is an injury and illness prevention program because that essentially says don’t only look at the specific standards but look at the general, the way work is done, the role workers have in identifying hazards and protecting themselves. We’re planning to propose an injury and illness prevention program standard, which will require employers essentially to set up a process to assess their hazards and figure out how to fix them and we think that will have the biggest impact.

NPH: OSHA released its first app on heat-related illnesses. Was it well received?

Dr. Michaels: We introduced that app at the end of the summer, but it still was downloaded thousands of times and we received great reports of its use. That was our first smart phone app. We’re looking at some other ones right now. The app is a great example of some of the new approaches that OSHA is taking. We don’t have a standard for heat exposure, but it’s commonsense that working in extreme heat without taking proper precautions can be dangerous, and in fact, can be fatal. We have dozens of workers die every summer from heat, and protection from heat is very straightforward.

We haven’t yet evaluated the success of the app because summer just ended and we’re very committed to evaluation to learn more about its effect and ways we can do the program even better. We emphasized three words—water, rest and shade, and we’re trying to do similar educational campaigns aiming at low literacy workers, non-English speaking workers, workers who aren’t in some of the traditional job settings like factories that we had traditionally gone to but instead work outdoors as day laborers because we know their risks are particularly high.

NPH: What has the buy-in toward safer and healthier workplaces been from employers?

Dr. Michaels: We have two recognition programs where we work with employers who are committed to going beyond our standards, to essentially providing a comprehensive safety program at their workplace. We have thousands of employers in these programs. One is called the Voluntary Protection Program, and that’s for larger employers primarily, and we have a program with small employers called the Safety & Health Recognition Program. Those employers tell us that without their safety programs, not only would they have higher injury rates, but their cost would be far higher. The safety programs save them money, they reduce their workers’ compensation premiums, and they have healthier, more productive workers. There is a toy company in Massachusetts that tells us without that program they would have moved to China by now.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.