Former directors of OSHA, NIOSH say new ergonomics standard unlikely
John Henshaw, former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, and John Howard, former director of NIOSH, recently participated in a Webcast for the American Society of Safety Engineers. The two experts discussed the future of OSHA and other topics, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the standards' setting process, and the economic impact on workplace safety.
Despite recent rumblings from Democrats in the House and Senate, Henshaw and Howard both agreed that the possibility of an ergonomic standard returning in the Obama administration is unlikely. Howard, however, said that a greater emphasis on educating employers and workers on ergonomics is needed.
"Coming from California, the only state with an ergonomic program, I believe something needs to be done," said Howard, former head of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. "One-third of all workplace injuries are due to musculoskeletal disorders. OSHA could do more in the area of education and provide employers with tools they can use to enable them to afford to address the risks to reduce this injury."
Value of safety important in economic downturn. Henshaw said that with the economic downturn, it is more important than ever before to show small- and medium-size employers the value of developing and implementing workplace safety programs.
"We need to sell it to them," he said. "Right now most large and smart companies already know the huge benefits and cost savings of developing and implementing occupational safety, health and environmental programs into the workplace, but we, including OSHA, really need to reach out and show them the benefits of investing in safety -- the value it brings and the increased efficiency."
As for the future of OSHA and the OSH Act, Henshaw said that he doesn't foresee any major changes in the immediate future for the agency due to the economy.
"I do not believe, even though I believe it is necessary, that we will see any changes to OSHA due to the economy in the near future," he said. "However, I do believe changes need to be made in the area of standards development and generating more participation by businesses. We all need to work together."
Changing workplace requires new approach. Howard said the workplace has changed significantly over the years, which should prompt OSHA to revisit and reevaluate certain initiatives and procedures.
"Unlike the 1970s, and the years before, people aren't with the same company for decades any longer," he said. "Many work as consultants and contractors. So, as the work relationship changes, so too does the nature of the work. Maybe the OSH Act should be revisited and updated to reflect these changes."
Howard said the incoming administration and the new agency head must be creative in charting the future of workplace safety.
"We need to be creative," he said. "For instance, the new head of OSHA should meet with the head of commerce in the next administration and say, ?You need to incorporate an overall workplace safety, health and environmental program for the proposed new infrastructure programs the president has called for.' This includes all the new highway and bridge construction projects. Start there, and show them how. Also, look at many state OSHA programs, like the one in California, where they often take a hybrid approach when addressing workplace hazards."
Overall, Henshaw said OSHA has been doing an excellent job, but there is room for improvement.
"OSHA is not ineffective, but it could be more effective if there were less boundaries prohibiting OSHA from setting up standards, such as court decisions and more," he said. "OSHA can't write a standard for every risk."
Henshaw and Howard both agreed that Congress can help play a role in outlining the priorities for OSHA, an agency that is charged with helping keep America's workers safe with very limited resources.
January 15, 2009
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