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The "new" OSHA: Dismay after reality sinks in (6/30)

June 26, 2009
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Despite Secretary Solis declaring earlier this year that, under her leadership in the Department of Labor, "There's a new sheriff in town" regarding how OSHA operates, there’s scan evidence as to what that new sheriff intends to do, or in fact who that new sheriff is.

Most OSHA watchers originally believed a new OSHA chief would have been nominated by the end of June. Many are baffled by the delay.

“It’s like a wet blanket has been thrown over OSHA,” said one source, who did not have permission to speak publicly on the record. “I’m disappointed by the lack of energy and fresh ideas coming from the agency,” he said.

Jordan Barab, a former union safety and health leader, a Capitol Hill staffer, and former OSHA leadership team member in the Clinton years, has been “acting sheriff” since April. But in his acting capacity, his authority is limited.

Barab recently told the American Industrial Hygiene Association in response to AHIA’s request to have the PEL for noise lowered that he shared AIHA’s concern that the current PEL is too high, but said the agency must wait for a permanent assistant secretary for labor to be put in place before any decisions on standards are made.

Barab has publicly made clear two points: 1) Secretary Solis and he ”believe in vigorous enforcement of laws that protect workers,” as he stated in his first public speech. We are committed to a strong federal role in protecting workplace safety and health, as mandated in the original OSH Act that created this agency.

And 2) “We’re pressing the reset button and OSHA is at long last moving forward on a regulatory agenda,” said Barab at a New York City press briefing June 11 sponsored by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, the New York State AFL-CIO and New York City Central Labor Council, took place at the New York City District Council of Carpenters.

To be sure, the agency is adding inspectors and enforcement budget dollars. OSHA is currently engaged in a “major revamping,” Barab said at the June 10 briefing.

“We’re moving from voluntary protection programs into more enforcement, so that we’re changing the emphasis.”

Barab said that one of his initial goals has been to eliminate the quotas that field officers have had for signing up companies for voluntary protection programs (VPP). While stressing that OSHA was not eliminating VPP programs, he said it was “also not going after companies to build up these numbers.”

The acting assistant secretary said OSHA’s budget for fiscal year 2009 had been increased to allow the agency to hire 36 new inspectors this year and up to 40 new inspectors next year. President Obama has proposed a 10 percent budget increase for fiscal year 2010 that will allow 200 new staffers to be hired, including 130 new inspectors.

As for standards-setting, the acting “new sheriff” is spending most of his time reviewing a number of “standards which have been stuck in the pipeline. I’m spending a lot of my time getting them unstuck,” Barab said at the New York City press briefing. He cited silica and combustible dust as two standards which the agency is moving forward to promulgate.

President Obama hit the ground running and wasted no time outlining his sweeping new policy directions for handling the financial crisis, healthcare reform, foreign relations, infrastructure repair, and environmental protection. That energy has not trickled down to small agencies such as OSHA and NIOSH. NIOSH is also operating under an attacking director.

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