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OSHA Chief: Inequality in America Is About Workplace Hazards, Too

David Michaels, head of OSHA, says low-wage workers face more dangers at work and that current federal guidelines aren't enough to protect them.
Image: Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration attends a full committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 23 in Washington, DC.
Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration attends a full committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 23 in Washington, DC. Astrid Riecken / Getty Images file

Inequality and poverty have taken center stage in American politics in the years since the recession. Fast food workers have raised the profile of low-wage work, cities and states around the country are raising the minimum wage, and elected officials in both parties have made the struggles of poor Americans core political issues.

But David Michaels, Ph.D., M.P.H., who leads the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Obama administration, says that workplace inequality is more than just wages. In an interview, Michaels, who is responsible for enforcing federal laws to project workers from illness and injury, says the regulatory structures he oversees aren’t sufficient to protect vulnerable workers from harm.

NBC: The political conversation about inequality in recent years has focused on wages. You've made the point that when addressing inequality, we should focus more on workplace health and safety issues. Why?

Michaels: Wages are clearly a core component of the discussion of inequality and the ability to get into and stay in middle class. But workplace health and safety issues also have an enormous impact. Workplace injury and illness can push workers out of middle-class jobs and make it hard to enter into the middle class in the first place.

Studies show that workplace injury and illness have major impacts on worker income, relationships with families and spouses and their communities. For families already struggling to save money, workplace injury can be devastating.

NBC: Who’s most impacted by occupation health and safety issues? Who gets sick at work?

Michaels: There’s a clear correlation between low wage jobs and unsafe jobs….Workers in low wage jobs are at much greater risk of conditions that will make it impossible for them to live in a healthy way, to earn money for their family, to build middle class lives.

NBC: Are there particular stories that stick with you from your work as the head of OSHA?

Michaels: The President receives countless letters, and some get distributed to the appropriate government agency to respond. We get a lot of these at OSHA and one that was particularly memorable was from a woman in Virginia who wrote the President about her husband. He worked at a foam company and got his foot pulled into a machine that left him with a terrible injury. She described how he has constant pain and about what it meant for his ability to raise their sons. I’ll read you the part that struck me most:

Before being injured, my husband played basketball or football every single day, and played outside with our two toddler sons….[One day] [o]ne of our sons took off towards the road running full speed one day and I was seven months pregnant and all my husband could do was yell at me and watch from his wheelchair as I scurried as fast as possible to grab my son before he went into the road… He will never be the same.

It captures for me what workplace injury means for a worker’s life. We often focus on fatalities, and they are terrible things, but there are tens of thousands of workers who have degrees of disability because of injuries and illness. And in the case of illness, like work-related asthma, often they don’t get recorded on employer’s OSHA logs. Employers are focused on the most traumatic injury, but the less high profile health issues do not get noticed. The Center for Disease Control reports there were nearly four million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2012. But workplace illness almost never gets reported. That’s in part because medical practitioners rarely know how to identify an illness as work-related.

NBC: Why aren't workers better protected from the kinds of workplace health issues you describe?

Michaels: When it comes to health hazards, we have a standards process that is broken. The way our health and safety standards process was written 44 years ago, and then as a result of subsequent court decisions, we have a regulatory process that requires tremendous amounts of study, and that’s especially true for OSHA standards.

The law imagined that we’d have updated limits on [legal levels of worker exposure] to chemicals, but to get to that point, to meet the requirement of the courts, is very onerous and resource intensive. It takes many years to pass a new standard. The result is that many workers in U.S. workplaces are not adequately protected.

Employers who understand safety and prevention know that to make sure workers are safe, they should focus not just on compliance with OSHA regulations, but also a culture of prevention.… We encourage employers to look at injury and illness prevention programs, medical surveillance, and other programs, that would have workers working with employers to find and address health issues. It’s not that we won’t issue standards on particular hazards—we will because employers need to know what’s safe—but employers also need to take steps.

And it’s in employers’ interest too. There’s a lot of evidence that companies that manage safety well are more productive and outperform their competitors.

We can do much better. Illness and injury are preventable.

This interview has been edited.