In a wide-ranging, informal discussion at a May 21 general session at AIHce 2103, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Dr. David Michaels shared his views on budget constraints, the regulatory process and public policy issues in workplace safety and health with  former OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, CIH. Henshaw is vice president of the Academy of Industrial Hygiene.

In response to questions about the sequester, which are steep, congressionally mandated budget cuts, Michaels said, “It's a huge loss for us. We made the decision when the sequester came down to do everything we could not to furlough our staff. The consequence is that we have to cut everything else.”

He said that the agency has cut back on compliance assistance – including re-certification of Voluntary Protection Program sites – and travel. Michaels noted that the agency has not cut enforcement activities or services to small businesses.

Henshaw next raised the issue of enforcement, acknowledging the impact of budget cuts on OSHA workplace inspections but stating that “we can’t get to where we want to go with just enforcement.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Michaels said, adding, “We can’t enforce our way into safe workplaces.”

While enforcement works to improve safety at workplaces that have been inspected, said Michaels, he noted that the agency only can inspect some 40,000-41,000 workplaces a year. “Even if our budget doubled, it’s not going to happen,” said Michaels. “If we inspect 80,000 workplaces instead of 40,000, that means we visit every workplace in the U.S. every 50 years instead of every 100 years.”

Michaels talked about the long-overdue update of the PELs and the fact that OSHA’s noise standard is “weak.” He said that a proposal for silica would be released this spring, joking, “I still have a month of spring.”

Michaels suggested that any stakeholders attend or offer comments for the regulatory hearings that will take place for the silica standard. “OSHA regulatory hearings are like Haley’s Comet,” he joked. “They don’t come around very often.”

He added that even when the agency has a consensus among stakeholders that a standard is needed and what it should contain – such as the one for beryllium – it still takes years of review and hearings to publish the proposed standard. “Our process is so intricate and long that even when businesses and unions have a good consensus on what to do, it still takes years” to issue a standard, said Michaels.