Industry wants OSHA nominee hearing

A coalition of business groups is worried that Senate Democratic leaders will not hold a confirmation hearing on President Barack Obama’s nominee for a key post at the Labor Department.

Concerned that the nomination of David Michaels to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will go straight to the floor, industry groups are lobbying for a committee hearing. The business associations want senators to grill Michaels on how he would address “ergonomic” workplace injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive-motion ailments.

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In letters sent this week to leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Coalition for Workplace Safety requested a hearing on the George Washington University professor Obama picked for the job in July.

Confirmation hearings for the OSHA director are typical, though none has been scheduled for Michaels yet.

The letters were sent to committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the top two members on the Workforce Protection subcommittee. The Chamber of Commerce sent senators a similar letter last week.

“Dr. Michaels has advocated an approach to developing workplace regulations that would allow unproven and insufficient scientific evidence to be used as the basis for regulatory actions and has criticized efforts to ensure that regulations are based on the best available science and data,” Jeri Kubicki, NAM’s vice president of human resources policy, wrote in the letter to senators.

The industry letter also accuses Michaels of objecting to Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, a 1993 case in which the Supreme Court tightened rules for admission of evidence in trials.

Keith Smith, NAM’s director of employment and labor policy, said the business groups want to see a hearing on Michaels’s nomination before the HELP Committee so that the nominee would be asked questions about how the administration plans to address ergonomics.

“Time and again, the OSHA administrator, because of the nature of that post, has been subject to a confirmation hearing,” he said.

Labor officials are strongly supportive of Michaels’s nomination, citing a career spent involved in the issues he would handle atop OSHA.

The AFL-CIO also wants a hearing, but worries that Republicans will use it as an opportunity to attack Michaels.

“This is an important position. We have always said it is certainly important to have a confirmation hearing for the head of OSHA,” said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of safety and health. “It is certainly appropriate. It is not appropriate to have a hearing that is a witch hunt.”

Harkin “is supportive of David Michaels and thinks his record of working with both Republicans and Democrats will serve him well,” said Bergen Kenny, Harkin’s spokeswoman. “We are looking to move his nomination quickly.”

Kenny did not rule out the possibility of a hearing on Michaels.

Enzi, meanwhile, is reviewing the nomination, according to a spokesman at the HELP Committee.

A Murray spokesman said the Washington state Democrat wants Michaels confirmed “as quickly as possible.”

NAM and the Coalition for Workplace Safety do not oppose Michaels’s endorsement. But business groups say a confirmation hearing is necessary to learn more about the Obama administration’s approach to regulating “ergonomics” injuries.

An ergonomics rule issued during the Clinton administration was overturned by the GOP-led Congress in 2001 soon after President George W. Bush was sworn in to office. At the time, business groups said the rule would have cost employers billions of dollars to comply.

Obama promised labor groups on the presidential campaign trail that he would issue a new ergonomics rulemaking. And in a June speech this year, acting OSHA Administrator Jordan Barab called the ergonomics issue a “political football with powerful players who don’t want to see it on the field.”

“Well, we’re going to pick up that football,” Barab told the American Society of Safety Engineers at its annual conference in San Antonio.

“This is something the administration has expressed an intent to approach again,” NAM’s Smith said. He called a new ergonomics regulation “the most concerning threat to employers.”

Union officials say business interests’ pledges to support some form of ergonomics regulation — just not those instituted during the Clinton administration — are disingenuous.

“We’ve seen a concerted effort by industry to stop any regulations on ergonomics,” Seminario said. “We’re not interested in re-litigating and re-fighting the wars of before. We’re interested in protecting people.”

The White House called Michaels a well-qualified nominee who would shepherd an important agency.

Michaels “has dedicated his career to promoting scientific integrity and improving the health and safety of America’s workers and the public at large. We believe his commitment to protecting worker health and safety makes him an excellent choice to lead this critical public health agency,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Some in Congress have already started a push to renew some regulations. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced legislation in May calling on the Labor Department to issue new standards to reduce injuries among healthcare workers. The bill has eight co-sponsors and is pending before the House Education and Labor Committee.

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