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Heat, violence and infectious diseases top priorities: OSHA head

Doug Parker

SAN ANTONIO — After spending the last year increasing the number of inspectors, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s top priorities are launching heat illness standards, addressing workplace violence and infectious diseases faced by health care workers, and targeting companies that repeatedly violate safety rules, the agency’s top official said.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker spoke Wednesday at Safety 2023, the American Society of Safety Professionals’ annual conference and later attended a press conference where he spoke of an agency that has added more than 600 employees since January 2022. 

Overall, the agency has added 181 certified health and safety inspectors, bringing the total to 931, according to data provided by OSHA Wednesday. 

“The No. 1 priority has been building our team because we had real atrophy in the prior administration, and we had reached staffing levels where we had the lowest number of inspectors in OSHA's 50-year history,” Mr. Parker said, adding that hiring  has since “plateaued.”  

Employers can expect greater enforcement strategies from OSHA in the future, including the recently announced expansion of the severe violators program — once restricted to high-risk industries only but now open to all workplaces as “a targeted approach that addresses situations where the penalty as calculated … is insufficient,” he said.  

While no official timeline has been set the agency has also spent the last year working on standards for violence, infectious diseases and heat illnesses. Mr. Parker said he expects to see updates in the coming months.   

In the meantime, targeted enforcement strategies have also been created since 2021 to zero in on enforcement for heat illness, fall protection and trenching hazards. — all among a laundry list of the agency’s priorities.   

Equity – ensuring the needs of minorities, including undocumented workers — is also a focus for the agency, Mr. Parker said.  

He spoke of OSHA forums with vulnerable workers affected by dealing with poor health and safety management.

“There was an undocumented worker who spilled hot water on his leg (and was told to) stay at work,” he said. “He pushed through the pain and he worked. He eventually got gangrene from an infection and had an amputation. And because this worker couldn't speak out, felt he couldn't speak out because he was threatened, because he was undocumented, because he was exploited.”  

In addition to offering spaces for workers to speak out, the agency is also providing immigration protections to those involved in investigations, he said.  

The issue of mental health and stress in the workplace is also being brought to the forefront, as OSHA recently launched online tools for employers, he said. 

“People's awareness, people's stress, is the presence that they're bringing to work,” he said. “It all has a factor in having an effective health and safety (program). And so this is something that we all need to work together on.”