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President Nominates Epidemiologist David Michaels, Science Defender, to Head OSHA

David Michaels at CAPPresident Obama intends to nominate worker health and safety advocate David Michaels, PhD, MPH to lead the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to a statement released by the White House yesterday. Michaels, an epidemiologist, is the director of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy and a research professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. He previously served in the Department of Energy as assistant secretary for environment, safety, and health during President Clinton’s second term. At DOE Michaels was the architect of an initiative that secured compensation for U.S. nuclear weapons workers made ill by radiation.

His work at DOE inspired him to write Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. The book explains how groups like the tobacco industry use various “tricks of the trade” to mask the health hazards of the products or operations by “manufacturing uncertainty” about risks and by debating the validity of scientific data.

“These are tricks that turn positive studies into negative ones or take one positive study and do a literature review which buries the positive study in what is essentially a whole mass of garbage so it looks like there is nothing there,” he told Science Progress in a podcast interview last year.

Doubt Is Their Product illustrates how “product defense firms” hired by big industries managed to consistently delay government actions to control the health risks of beryllium, tobacco, asbestos, lead, chromium, and other deadly chemicals. In his research, Michaels “found some very powerful smoking guns,” which he made available at www.defendingscience.org “so anyone can download them and read exactly how these people work.”

Several of these smoking guns came from Hill & Knowlton, a public relations company that defended the tobacco industry for over a decade. In addition, the company listed among its accomplishments that it was essentially able to delay regulation for a couple of years on Freon, a chlorofluorocarbon known for depleting the ozone layer.

Noting the difficultly of spotting these “tricks of the trade,” Michaels said that he supported prohibiting financial conflicts of interest in scientific studies and government advisory panels as a way to curb “industry’s assault on science.

“We know the basic problem is that scientists who are paid to find a certain result will find that result. That’s certainly what we see in these studies over and over again: that scientists who work for these companies that actually manufacture uncertainty never find a result the sponsor doesn’t want,” he said.

Michaels also did a book event at the Center for American Progress: view full event video (CAP site)

Update: The New York Times commended David Michaels for his commitment to worker safety and endorsed his nomination for OSHA director in an editorial yesterday. Michaels “seems just the right man to steer the agency back toward an emphasis on protecting workers after eight years of lax oversight and favoritism to industry under the Bush administration,” the newspaper wrote. The editorial suggested that Michaels may meet resistance from business interests, but that they may want to rethink their position on the nominee since “his emphasis on cultural change and involvement of workers in improving safety could help ease the polarization between business and labor.”

Image: CAP

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