Matthew Deffebach and Punam Kaji of the Houston, Texas office of Haynes and Boone, LLP recently attended and presented at the 2015 Annual Safety Professionals Conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). At the conference, Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, discussed some of the most important issues that OSHA is addressing currently, including the spring regulatory agenda (discussed more within this Newsletter).

An overall theme of Dr. Michaels’ session was that employers must assess safety hazards and protect employees as part of a safety culture that goes beyond just OSHA compliance. Accordingly, Dr. Michaels discussed the various OSHA regulations that are outdated and have not been updated due to the laborious rulemaking process. Specifically, the permissible exposure limits (PEL) for various chemicals and silica are a priority for OSHA and, according to Dr. Michaels, employers should acknowledge that the PEL is a minimum requirement, and not necessarily an adequate safety goal. Employers can expect the new silica rule to contain requirements for measuring worker exposure, using further controls, and implementing medical exams, among other requirements.

Dr. Michaels also talked about specific types of employees who are at risk. He pointed out the correlation between low income jobs and injuries, and noted that income inequality can create a safety and health issue. He also discussed temporary workers, an ongoing focus for OSHA since the launch of the Temporary Worker Initiative in 2013.

Regarding specific industries, Dr. Michaels mentioned oil and gas and healthcare. According to Dr. Michaels, an ongoing alliance and focus on the oil and gas field has resulted in a reduction of injuries, but still the industry reports higher injuries than most. In early 2015, OSHA added oil and gas as a category to the Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP), meaning that violators in the oil and gas field can now find themselves publicly listed. Regarding healthcare, in addition to infectious disease and blood borne pathogens, OSHA has taken notice of the many injuries associated with the physical labor of healthcare. Interestingly, nursing assistants are injured at the workplace at the same rate as firefighters.

Finally, Dr. Michaels addressed the new January 2015 injury-reporting rule, explaining that because of the rule, OSHA has become aware of a number of smaller employers with inadequate safety programs. He noted that OSHA still intends to find more ways to use recordkeeping as a public deterrent, such as creating public online posting.