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OSHA chief selection: Going to Plan B

March 30, 2009
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With word from Washington that former lead contenders for the top OSHA slot, the AFL-CIO’s Peg Seminario and former NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard are out of the running, and industrial hygienist Hamid Arabzadeh is facing mounting labor opposition, who else might make the OSHA short list?

An intriguing name was brought to our attention by a Washington source in late March: Kathryn O’Leary Higgins. Since 2006, Kitty Higgins has worked directly in the safety field as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). In 2008, she was described in a Culver City, Calif., online newspaper article about a Los Angeles commuter-freight train crash that killed 25 people as “sassy” and known to sometimes have “difficulty keeping her boiling Irish temper tucked beneath her collar… (she is) a lady very conscious of her status as an outspoken Democrat.”

Higgins has extensive experience in the Department of Labor. She served as deputy secretary of the Department of Labor (July 1997-May 1999), chief of staff to Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (January 1993-February 1995), and began her career in government in 1969 as a manpower specialist with the Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor.

“I’ve made a dozen calls about her, and the verdict is unanimous: Few people know Washington as well, and how to maneuver in it,” Reich wrote in his 1997 memoir, “Locked in the Cabinet.” “Her annual St. Patrick’s Day party is a Washington fixture. Another Irish pol, she loves the game of politics. She’s also interested in the substance. She’s devoted most of her adult life to the cause of helping working people make something more of their lives.”

Another name that surfaced recently is Mark Briggs, campus risk manager at the University of Illinois. Briggs joined the university’s Division of Public Safety in 2000, coming to the job with experience in risk management consulting and the insurance industries. Briggs owned a safety and risk management consultancy full-time for seven years, after having worked in the insurance industry for 11 years. He is a graduate of the health sciences/safety program at Illinois State University and has earned professional designations of Associate in Risk Management and Certified Safety Professional. He is an active member of several national associations, including the University Risk Management and Insurance Association, the Risk and Insurance Management Society, and the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

In a 2003 video released by ASSE to commemorate Labor Day, the group said its members were responding to the changing face of workplace safety following 9/11. “We’ve entered a whole new phase,” Briggs said in the video. “We are more focused now on emergency planning, trying to plan for contingencies that were not on our radar screen before.”

One source tells us state OSHA program administrators are being looked at by the search committee. Peter DeLucca, recently retired head of the respected Oregon OSHA program, has been one name mentioned. Several sources tell us Charles Jeffress would be interested in returning to his old job as OSHA chief now that Seminario is no longer in the picture. He could be a compromise candidate. As once source told us, “Perhaps the best you can hope for is lukewarm support from business and labor (since they will almost never agree on anything OSHA-related).”

Sources say other names that have surfaced since the November election do not appear to have much traction, such as Dr. Michael Silverstein (clinical professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, and former director of policy for OSHA from1993 to 1995), Frank Mirer (former head of the United Auto Workers safety and health department, now professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the Hunter School of Urban Public Health in New York City), Jordan Barab (senior policy advsior for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor), and David Michaels (professor at George Washington University and assistant secretary of energy for environment, safety, and health under President Clinton).

Remember this, though: seasoned OSHA-watchers in Washington say never rule out a surprise selection. Hilda Solis was not on anyone’s watch list for the Secretary of Labor job. When it comes to Washington chatter, the age-old adage still holds: “Those that know ain’t saying, and those that are saying don’t know.”

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