While Industry Attacks OSHA Nominee, Dems Bypass Hearing

Tomorrow morning, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is scheduled to vote on the nomination of David Michaels, President Obama’s pick to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Michaels nomination was not subject to a confirmation hearing, though he did meet individually with some Senators, according to E&E Daily (subscription).

While it may be politically expedient, bypassing the hearing is a mistake, in my opinion. OSHA is a major regulatory agency, and the leaders of such agencies should, as a rule of thumb, go before the Senate committee of jurisdiction to explain their views and qualifications.

More importantly, the hearing would have served as a venue for some Senators, especially committee chair Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), to counter some of the unfair accusations against Michaels being hurled by the anti-regulatory crowd.

Industry lobbyists have been critical of Michaels. Several groups including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote to the committee detailing their objections to Michaels’ nomination. “Michaels has advocated for more government regulation, even when the available science and data to support such regulations is inadequate or unsettled,” the letter says.

That charge is bogus but not surprising considering the source. In his 2008 book, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, Michaels details well known and not so well known incidences in which industry groups commissioned scientific studies and reports intended to undermine evidence and/or suppressed science that would prove their products harmful or strengthen the case for regulation. Those groups have also traditionally seized on any point of uncertainty, no matter how miniscule, in order to cast doubt on public health issues. The examples cover all sorts of toxic substances, ranging from tobacco and asbestos to aromatic amines, a class of compounds that for decades caused bladder cancer in workers exposed to them.

A hearing would provide an opportunity for Harkin and others to voice their support on the record, and to explain exactly why Michaels is well-qualified to lead OSHA. He served in the Energy Department under President Clinton (after Senate confirmation) where he created a program to compensate nuclear complex workers with health problems. Currently, he is an experienced epidemiologist and the Interim Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

The litmus test for nominations should be the level of qualification, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the nominee's views.

OSHA suffered during the Bush administration, and it is in desperate need of strong leadership. Committee Democrats shouldn’t shy away from defending the need to protect workers through regulation, and I can't help but feel that's what is happening here.

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