Published Tuesday, July 28, 2009 | 2:06 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, July 28, 2009 | 5:38 p.m.
George Washington University professor David Michaels will be nominated as the assistant secretary of labor to run the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the White House said Tuesday.
Michaels, an epidemiologist, has been a notable advocate for workers to be compensated for health risks from chemicals and has also exposed attempts from businesses to block health regulations by making scientific research appear less certain than it is.
His nomination comes as the business lobby has made it clear it has no intention of allowing the Democrats’ labor agenda to advance without a fight.
Alongside its steady assault over the union-backed card check bill, the business community has turned its attention to one of the Obama administration’s labor-friendly nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
This week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asked the Senate for a full hearing to vet Craig Becker, one of the president’s three nominees for the board that administers national labor law.
The chamber has been waging a multi-million-dollar campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act, the pro-union legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize. Unions have been waging an equally strong campaign in support of the bill.
The lobby worries that if confirmed for the panel, Becker would advance the goals of the so-called card check legislation, even if Congress does not.
In a letter to the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the Chamber wrote that Becker’s views on labor law are “extreme” and “out of the mainstream.”
“The Committee should take this opportunity to ascertain whether Mr. Becker still holds these views,” the chamber wrote.
Becker is a well regarded labor law expert. He has worked as associate general counsel for the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, and is a longtime law professor.
Requiring such a hearing for nominations to the labor panel are uncommon, except perhaps for the chairman’s post.
However, as Congress becomes increasingly partisan, green-lighting such routine presidential nominees is more difficult.
The committee has not yet decided how to proceed on Becker.
The Chamber said Tuesday that it also intends to ask for a full hearing for Michaels.
Michaels served as the Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment, Safety and Health under the Clinton administration. In that capacity he wrote an initiative to compensate nuclear weapons workers at Nevada Test Site and elsewhere who developed occupational illnesses as a result of exposure to radiation, beryllium and other hazards.
He has recently focused his studies on how science is used in public policy. Last year, he published the book "Doubt is their Product" about industries' use of misleading public relations campaigns to create scientific doubt and block governmental efforts to regulate health risks.
Marc Freedman, head of labor policy for the Chamber of Commerce, said he finds Michaels' past advocacy of increased workplace health regulations problematic.
"It's my feeling that just because he believes science says one thing, that doesn't mean that it is unquestionable, that there isn't countervailing data to argue otherwise," Freedman said. "This is going to be one of the great debates we're going to see going forward."
The Obama administration has signaled it intends to shift OSHA away from the strong emphasis during the Bush administration on voluntary workplace safety compliance toward increased enforcement.
Union officials cheered the appointment of Michaels.
Eric Frumin, head of health and safety for the union coalition Change to Win, called it the best OSHA appointment since the Carter administration.
Frumin said he thought the appointment of Michaels would be less controversial than alternatives since he comes out of academia and does not have direct ties to industry or labor groups.
If confirmed, Michaels will take over from Jordan Barab, who is currently serving as the the acting assistant secretary. Barab has been a fierce advocate of increased enforcement of workplace safety laws. He has indicated that he will continue in the No. 2 position at OSHA.
As the head of FedOSHA, Michaels will enforce workplace safety for about a half of all states. He will also oversee other states, including Nevada, which operate their own workplace safety agencies to ensure that the states are at least as effective as the federal agency.