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March 02, 2018
Former OSHA head: No substitute for enforcement

David Michaels, the former head of OSHA, told the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections that there are no substitutes for standards, inspections, and enforcement and that employer voluntary programs produce limited benefits at most.

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“OSHA’s compliance assistance programs are useful for those employers who voluntarily want to protect their employees and for employees who want to know what hazards they face and their rights under the law, but for many reasons, these programs are far less effective than and are not a substitute for protective standards and strong, fair enforcement,” said Michaels at the February 27, 2018, hearing.

Michaels is currently a professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University. From 2009 to January 2017, he served as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, the longest tenure for an assistant secretary in OSHA’s history.

Most effective tools

“As Assistant Secretary, I had to examine and evaluate the tools Congress gave OSHA,” Michaels testified. “There is no question that standards are OSHA’s most effective and efficient tool to save lives because standards improve workplace practices and conditions in the largest number of workplaces. Much of the progress OSHA has made is in reducing hazards, and saving lives, in the areas where it has issued standards. Most employers are law abiding and will comply with OSHA standards; even without an inspection, they attempt to follow the law and protect their workers from the hazards addressed by the standard.”

Multiple vs. individual employers

Michaels states that standards and “strong, fair enforcement” impact multiple employers at the same time, and there is compelling evidence they are effective in preventing injuries. In contrast, endeavors such as OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) focus on individual employers and have no strategic focus.

“The fact is, most of these efforts don't have broad widespread impact on hazards or industries,” said Michaels. “The VPP is designed to recognize ‘the best of the best,’ establishments that had well-functioning safety and health management programs that exceeded OSHA’s requirements.”

Wall-to-wall inspections

Also, said Michaels, to function well, the VPP requires use of extensive resources—agency staff must conduct wall-to-wall inspections in these plants before entry into the program and then must complete a sizable amount of paperwork. He noted that the administration of George W. Bush rapidly expanded the program but did not have the means to vouch that every participant in the VPP was, in fact, was one of the best and deserved the recognition and inspection exemptions that the VPP provided. Under his own leadership, Michaels said OSHA worked hard to reestablish the program’s integrity by issuing new policies to address fatalities and willful violations in VPP establishments.

“Due to budget restrictions, we were forced to focus on re-approvals of current members, rather than bringing in new members,” said Michaels.

He adds that R. Alexander Acosta, the current Secretary of Labor, again wants to expand the VPP.

No reduction in injuries

“For several reasons, OSHA needs to take a hard look at whether expansion of VPP would be an effective use of OSHA’s scarce resources,” says Michaels, who adds the following:

  • Given that VPP companies had superior safety records before participating in the program, there is no evidence that participation in the VPP reduces injury or illness risk.
  • Unlike enforcement, no rigorous study has ever been conducted on the effectiveness of the VPP.
  • Most VPP companies are large and are among the wealthiest in the country. They have the resources and expertise to implement excellent safety and health programs on their own.

“It is difficult to justify spending scarce OSHA resources on these large firms with good safety records, when there are so many workplaces with serious hazards and high injury rates that need OSHA’s attention,” concluded Michaels.

Michaels testimony is at

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