The First Speech by OSHA’s New Administrator, David Michaels

Fresh from his Senate confirmation, David Michaels, the new Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, made his maiden speech as OSHA Administrator Wednesday. He spoke at a conference sponsored by the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health, an address entitled, “Making Green Jobs Safe: Integrating Occupational Safety & Health into Green and Sustainability.” Excerpt:

I think it’s very fitting and proper that my first speech as Assistant Secretary should address the issue of green jobs – what green jobs mean for the earth, for our economy and for American workers.

We’re all aware of the job opportunities that green jobs offer, and in the present economy, new technologies with the potential of new jobs are especially welcome.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis recently announced nearly $55 million in green job grants, authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. These grants will support job training and labor market information programs to help workers, many in underserved communities, find jobs in expanding green industries and related occupations.

Is it fitting, really, that the first comments by a powerful federal regulator single out one segment of the economy for implicitly favored treatment? No one really knows what “green jobs” or “green industries” are; subjective definitions and standards are enemies of consistent regulation — and the rule of law, for that matter.

To be fair, the occasion was a forum dedicated to greenness, so comments to the topic were to be expected. But when speaking about the broader economy, Michaels offers even more of this subjectivity and invidiousness. This is a striking statement, coming as it does from a powerful regulatory and enforcement official who should embrace fairness and objectivity.

Where, and when possible, OSHA must move ahead on rulemaking for urgently needed standards – and to create good standards, we’ll need the input of scientists and engineers, academics, students and workers. We’ll also need allies in the progressive business community who will say “yes” to sensible changes and participate in the rulemaking process with constructive comments and insight.

Those comments divide employers into good business and bad business, progressives and reactionaries, those to be rewarded, those to be punished. In other words, “If you go along with us, support our proposals with our ‘sensible changes’ you’re progressive and good, and we’ll get along just fine. If you disagree with our proposals, object to our ‘sensible changes,” well, then, we won’t pay any attention to you. If you’re lucky. If you’re not, we might pay a lot of attention to you, and you won’t like it a bit.”

We would have expected a top official in the jobs-minded Obama Administration and Department of Labor to begin his tenure with speech that says, “We are going to work with everyone to create good jobs in a safe and healthy workplace.” Instead, we get a speech that told employers to fall in line with whatever OSHA says or pay the consequences.

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