For over 15 years, Michael Wood has been at the helm of Oregon OSHA. The Labor Press caught up with him by Zoom April 8.
By Don McIntosh
As an infectious disease that can spread in the workplace, COVID-19 has been described as the greatest threat to workplace health since OSHA was founded 50 years ago. Would you agree with that, and how well do you think Oregon OSHA responded?
I don’t know whether I would necessarily call it the greatest threat since OSHA was founded. I haven’t really thought about it that way. But I think it’s certainly the greatest workplace health challenge we’ve faced. We’ve had pandemics before, but nothing that has impacted the workplace, both in terms of the risks at the workplace, and the level of economic disruption it’s caused. It has limited our ability to respond, because we haven’t wanted to go into workplaces, both to protect the safety of our staff and—in the early days—because we were concerned about being a disease vector ourselves. And so at the very time that the need became acute, we were immediately scrambling to identify different ways of doing work. Here in Oregon, and across the country, we ended up processing 10 times as many complaints as we would in a typical year. The scale of that challenge strained our system. Looking back, I continue to be impressed that we had a system that was scalable and versatile enough that it didn’t break. We were able to absorb that impact. This certainly is one of the greatest workplace health hazards that we’ve faced in the last 50 years. I’m just always hesitant to put the superlative on something.
Eight months into the pandemic, Oregon OSHA issued a temporary rule requiring employers to conduct a risk assessment, provide face coverings to workers and ensure that they use them, and ensure that workers are six feet away from other people, among other things. How much do you think Oregon employers are aware of these requirements? Have any employers been cited for refusing to abide by them?
Well, the basic requirements—about distancing and the use of facial coverings and some level of sanitation—even before our rule, we were enforcing those. And I think that Oregon employers were by and large very aware of those requirements. We’ve gotten some complaints suggesting that employers haven’t done the infection control plan and the infection control training. Normally, those complaints are paired with complaints about specific practices. So it will be: They’re not enforcing facial coverings, or they’re not paying attention to distancing, and they don’t have an infection control plan. I know that our rule had some effect. Frankly, our enforcement has ended up being focused more on those basics about facial coverings and distancing, and on the closure orders issued under public health.
That accounted for some of the more high profile cases that we saw, like the gym in Salem that was operating in violation of the closure order. You cited them, right?
Yeah, really all our significant citations that involved willful conduct relate to either use of facial coverings, or failure to honor restrictions on operation, whether it’s gyms, restaurants, or bars.
Over the last three or four decades, there’s actually been a fairly dramatic reduction of workplace fatalities and injuries. Why do you think that is?
I think it comes out of the  Mahonia Hall discussions that reformed workers’ compensation. That really energized our focus on safety in the state. It was a recognition by business, labor, and government that we all needed to work on preventing workers’ compensation claims costs by preventing the claims and injuries in the first place. I think that has been a success story. It certainly shows up in the fatality numbers and injury numbers over three decades. And workers’ compensation premiums, over three decades, have all gone down dramatically. That also reflects some trends nationally, but the drop here in Oregon has been steeper and sharper over that time.
You attribute it to a financial incentive—in workers’ comp rates—for a business to operate a little more safely?
Certainly there is a financial incentive for large businesses, and across the system. For a lot of smaller businesses, if we can get them to take the risk of injury seriously, they will work to prevent it. I’ve always argued that the really punitive approach when a fatality occurs is wrongheaded, because that’s too late. You can’t prevent that fatality. And the problem with that employer is they weren’t taking it seriously beforehand. Saying, “Well, not only did you result in in one of your coworkers getting killed, but we’re gonna smack you with $25,000 or $50,000” —that’s not gonna change their thinking in advance. So I think part of our job is making them take that risk seriously. If we can’t get them to take that risk seriously, then the second line is to get them to take the risk that will show up and cite them seriously, before a fatality occurs.
There’s also been a shift in Oregon away from high risk industries, particularly the logging industry, which were a source of a lot of the fatalities and injuries. How much of the overall reduction in fatalities do you think comes from that?
Well, certainly some of the reduction in the raw numbers is a result of that. But we still do logging, we still have some fairly high risk manufacturing, we still do construction. And when I arrived here, there was actually a lot of data analysis that the Workers Comp and research people here in DCBS [Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services] had been doing that looked at industry specific trends, and they found the same thing. And if you think about the workers compensation rates, those are also decreasing in those industries. And the claims allowance rules changed in the late ‘80s as part of the reforms, but they haven’t done anything but improve for workers since then. So I know there are still some people who say, “Well, the reason our premiums are low is because we’ve become real strict on claims allowance.” If that was it, it would have dramatically dropped in 1991 and it would have been static or started to go up since then. Right? We look at the numbers. That’s not what happened. A steady drop started in 1990 and really continued until the last five years, when it’s it’s flattened out some. But but those dramatic reductions occurred at times when the Workers Compensation claims allowance was not only not getting tighter, but the benefits actually increased.
Are you gonna stick around for a while? Any imminent plans to retire?
I do not have any imminent plans to retire. It’s an insightful question. I’ve been here for 15 years. I’m becoming the curmudgeon within the departments overall.
I looked on LinkedIn, and you’ve been in this specialty to some extent for about 40 years now.
Yeah, and workplace safety and health for 25 years. Before that I had a lot of worker’s comp experience in Washington. You’re right. I’m coming up on 40 years.
What do you see as the biggest remaining workplace safety hazards today?
Well, unfortunately, as we just had a conversation in the construction advisory committee, COVID-19 notwithstanding, the challenges we face in the workplace are largely the same challenges we were facing 30 or 40 years ago. One of the most frequent sources of injuries and fatalities is falls. We’ve known how to tackle those for decades, and we have better tools and techniques now than than ever. And I think getting probably the biggest challenge is getting to that point where the safety rules aren’t seen as a nuisance or a pain, getting to a point where people treat safety provisions as naturally as most drivers now treat putting on a seatbelt or buckling your children into a car seat. I’m old enough that I remember when neither of those was the norm. That’s more of a philosophical thing than saying it’s this particular hazard. But I think that’s really one of the difficulties. I’ve said for a number of years that I think one of the challenges we face in Oregon is that 25 or 30 years of success has created a certain complacency in our workplaces. We start to say, “hey, we’ve got this dialed in, and we’re good.” We’ve picked a lot of the low hanging fruit. But we haven’t picked it all. Every time somebody dies because they get caught up in the machine, or they’re in a confined space, or they’re in a trench, or they fall from a roof or from a scaffold, those things just shouldn’t be happening. And they’re still the primary source of problems.
Do you think Oregon OSHA could be doing a better job protecting workers? And if the speaker of the Oregon House, the Senate president, and the governor came to you looking for recommendations, what would your wish list be?
I mean, of course we could do a better job. I suppose if I were really going to have a wish list, I mean, you know, I’m a regulator with staff: Give me four times as many staff! The other wish would be that we solve our retention issues. That’s a problem nationally. I hear my peers from other states talk about it. We’ve historically operated on a model where we figured that it took four to five years to reach sort of journey-level status as a compliance officer. With the changes in the workplace and with the modern expectation of employees, we don’t get them for four to five years. We’ll get some who will stay 10, but the baby boomer who would show up at a job and complain about it for the next 20 to 30 years, those people are gone. That’s not who we’re hiring now. So we need to figure out ways to keep them. We also need to figure out ways to equip them. And I think we’ve been doing a good job on this in recent years. But to equip them more rapidly, and not depend on an organizational depth of experience. That just isn’t a reality in the modern workforce.
So you wish there was a way you could make people stay working there longer.
Our benefits are more than competitive. You know, even our scaled-down retirement system is good, our insurance is very solid. But even that baby boomer hitting the workforce 30 years ago wasn’t real focused on the retirement plan. So getting people to take the long view is a challenge. So if I could fix something, I wish I knew exactly what the fix was, and then I’d really be arguing for it.
Are you guys hiring right now?
We are hiring almost all the time.