It’s a tradition for APHA’s Occupational Health & Safety section to invite top officials from OSHA, MSHA, and NIOSH to a “Talking Heads” session at each APHA annual meeting. The session “The Future of Occupational Safety and Health in the Obama Administration” featured Jordan Barab, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA; John Howard, Director of NIOSH; and Gregory Wagner, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy of MSHA. The room was packed with an audience eager to hear how this new leadership plans to address worker health and safety issues that haven’t been getting enough attention in recent years.

John Howard, who was also head of NIOSH for several years during the Bush administration, characterized the change in administrations by saying that “it’s gratifying to be in the position of having your science wanted.” He emphasized that green jobs are not enough, but that “green and safe is what we need.” He also reminded the audience that there are many hurdles that have been put in place over the previous decades by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government, so progress will still take lots of time and effort.

Greg Wagner told the crowd that it’s time to put the “H” of “health” back in MSHA, and noted that part of the reason the regulatory process takes so long is that there are many opportunities for public involvement. He called for greater participation from miners and urged the audience members to get involved, too.

Jordan Barab rattled off a list of things OSHA has already done: fined BP a record $87 million, issued several egregious violations (five will be issued by the end of the month, compared to four during all of last year), and ended the quotas for alliances and voluntary protection programs, to allow the agency to focus on enforcement. He said OSHA will be hiring more staff to deal with inspections, standards, and whistleblowing; holding a conference on immigrant workers; and turning attention to the problems of violence, stress, and fatigue.

The audience had a lot of questions and comments about how the agencies should go about rulemaking, enforcement, and recruiting the next generation of occupational health and safety professionals:

Rulemaking, Enforcement, and Research to Practice
In response to a question about how to speed up rulemaking, Barab said that they’re looking at getting rules out of the Department of Labor faster and in discussions with the Office of Management and Budget about that agency’s role. Wagner noted that MSHA has been more successful in getting rules out because its stakeholder groups are more limited and well-defined, and stated that their agency is trying to speed up the process by reducing the number of “bites of the apple” that each agency subgroup gets.

On the enforcement side of things, Wagner explained that MSHA will work on using predictive modeling to better target enforcement, with the goal of predicting where the next disaster may occur and averting them. Barab gave the BP penalty as an example of how OSHA is getting out the message that it’s going to be hard on lawbreaking employers, and said the agency would avoid as much as possible the practice of downgrading willful citations (which we saw all too frequently over the past several years). He noted that the lack of a confirmed Solicitor of Labor is a problem.

Celeste (who was moderating the session) asked the audience what they wanted from NIOSH, and one response was “research to practice” – that is, making sure that research gets applied in the field rather than just sitting in someone’s filing cabinet. Howard responded that research-to-practice is embedded in both internal and external research, and that he hopes to fund RtP centers similar to NIH centers that work on translating research into clinical practice. Later in the discussion, he also told the audience, “I can’t ask for appropriations, but you can.”

Recruiting the Next Generation
One question regarding how to get more young people involved in occupational health and safety generated lots of comments from audience members as well as the panelists. NIOSH funds Education and Research Centers and the Occupational Health Internship Program, and Presidential Management Fellowships are available with the Department of Labor. Wagner pointed out that government jobs are attractive in a bad economy, and MSHA is hiring right now. Barab mentioned that funding extramural research is a great way to get young investigators involved in the field, and that he lists this as a priority to appropriators.

When Celeste (who was moderating the discussion) asked how many people in the room had gotten their start through an ERC, OHIP, or New Directions grant, several hands went up. The fact that several actual young people approached the microphone with questions or comments also seemed like a good sign; one of them suggested that the agencies improve their websites, because she’d found it difficult to find what she was looking for online.

Towards the end of the program, someone asked about the state of the bureaucracy at OSHA. Barab said he’d been favorably surprised, and “we’re trying to unleash the inner Labor Department.” Overall, the feeling in the room was one of excitement and optimism – and it was clear from the tone and content of the questions that the occupational health and safety community will be holding the new leadership to very high standards.

If you went to this session, what kind of feeling did you get from it? And, whether or not you were there, what questions or comments do you have for the leaders of these agencies?