OSHA Secretary Lays Out Five Green Reform Principles
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently participated in a special workshop organized by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on the subject of ‘Going Green.’ More specifically, the emphasis of the meeting was on the idea that new government initiatives surround the creation of environmentally-friendly or ‘green’ jobs also offered an opportunity for OSHA to get in on the ground floor of a brand new industry and ensure that employee safety is built in from the bottom up.
Making a presentation at the workshop was new OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels, who outlined a series of five issues that the Administration intends to follow through on when handling the safety questions surrounding green jobs. Michaels made the point that while ecologically-conscious jobs are generally seen by the public as safer than traditional industrial positions, whether due to the use of fewer caustic chemicals or a lower degree of mechanization, the reality is often different. Green building techniques and renovations still expose workers to construction industry hazards, for example, and wind and solar power generation pose potential dangers through high voltage currents and large scale equipment use.
The Assistant Secretary proposed to bring OSHA standards and worker safety more in line with the present and future of green industry in a number of different ways that he described as ‘Green Reform Principles.’ The first of these is to encourage employers and employees to work together when assessing workplace hazards and coming up with solutions and protections. Not only would this allow workers to become more engaged in a decision-making process that directly impacts their well-being, but it also offers managers a real-world viewpoint on the efficacy of certain safety interventions.
Next, OSHA plans to update their chemical safety standards, an initiative which is already underway through planned changes to the Hazard Communication Standards. Michaels stated that OSHA’s current chemical safety platform is rooted in science that is almost five decades old, and that through collaboration with the European Community’s safety officials and re-thinking OSHA’s somewhat passive approach to the dangers posed by chemicals, the Administration may be able to identify thousands of new substances which pose a threat to worker health.
The third Green Reform Principle is somewhat vague, in that it asks whether it might be better to completely redesign the workflow and standards of specific industries instead of updating older methodologies. Michaels did not offer much in the way of explanation as to what exactly this could mean to established businesses, and it will most likely stand out as the most controversial of the five Principles in the coming months. Principle four marks a commitment to more rapid and better informed rulemaking, while the fifth and final Principle once again echoed OSHA concerns about giving workers a more powerful role in workplace safety decisions.
While these five points on OSHA’s future role in green industry are commendable, the Administration will need to fully flesh them out before their potential impact can be properly assessed. The generalized way that the Principles were described, especially towards the end of the list, also indicates that perhaps they will be applied across more than just those businesses who claim to be operating in an environmentally-friendly sector of the economy.