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OSHA has an 18-month window to act

November 9, 2012
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OSHAMere days after the presidential election, the honeymoon is still on for the winners. That includes agencies such as OSHA, MSHA and EPA, whose top leaders were political appointments made after Obama’s 2008 win.

Their jobs may or may not be safe for another term. Every political appointee is expected to hand in a letter of resignation to the administration. Some are rejected and the appointee remains in place, if he or she chooses so. In other cases, resignations are accepted, with the appointee soon cleaning out his desk.

The honeymoon period, or the window of opportunity to actually get something done, lasts roughly 18 months. Then the politics of the mid-term elections of 2014 kick in. Soon after, federal agencies get caught up in the next presidential election cycle, and must move very cautiously.

The time for bold moves is now, at OSHA and elsewhere. This particularly holds true for new standards. If the agency is ever going to aggressively move forward with the Injury and Illness Prevention Program (I2P2), it needs to do so in the next year to 18 months or so.

If OSHA wants to tackle standards-setting for silica, infectious diseases, electronic recordkeeping, combustible dust, possibly update permissible exposure limits (PELs) and require hearing conservation programs on construction sites, now or in the first 9 months of the new year is the time to get going.

Of course OSHA is too small of an agency with insufficient money and manpower to take on all these issues. Sources say the agency’s top leadership team learned in the past four years to reserve their resources for only two or three priorities.

In the next few months we should see what OSHA’s priorities are, via the delayed regulatory calendar listing all possible standards-setting topics that presumably will now be published,  and through the public speeches of the agency’s top officials.

The wild card in analyzing OSHA’s future is in knowing just who those top officials will be. If the current OSHA regime remains (Dr. Michaels, deputy boss Jordan Barab and Chief of Staff Deb Berkowitz) the agency could take the full (or nearly full) opportunity presented by that open window for action.

If a new leadership teams is installed, perhaps by a new Labor Secretary replacing Hilda Solis, OSHA will not move nearly as fast and the politics-free (or nearly free) window of opportunity may be closing or already closed by the time the newcomers learn the ropes.

Still, four more years is the length of time OSHA has under the Obama administration, and surprises from the agency can come late in the game. This would be especially true if a Democrat loses the 2016 election. Confronted with the GOP wielding power over fed agencies, you could see a slew of so-called “midnight regulations,” issued before the changing of the White House residents. A prime example: OSHA’s ergonomics standard was finalized and issued quickly after Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000. As we know, the Republican White House wasted no time in dictating to Congress that the ergo rule must be killed, and it was.

By the way, ISHN’s Washington sources say ergonomics is not on any OSHA watcher’s list of priorities.

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