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Capitol Hill policy advisor and former union safety director named acting OSHA chief (4/9)

April 9, 2009
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Starting this Monday, OSHA has a new boss.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis yesterday named House Education and Labor Committee senior policy advisor Jordan Barab as deputy assistant secretary for OSHA. Barab will also serve as acting assistant secretary for OSHA beginning Monday. Barab has worked for the committee for more than two years specializing in worker health and safety issues, according to a press released issued from Rep. George Miller's (D-CA) office. Miller chairs the House Education and Labor Committee.

Said Miller in the prepared statement: “Jordan will bring a tremendous amount of valuable health and safety experience to an agency that has been neglected for far too long. Throughout his career, Jordan has demonstrated the specialized knowledge of health and safety issues needed to revamp the agency and strengthen its efforts to protect Americans while on the job.”

Barab has had a long and varied career in Washington. Prior to joining the committee, he worked for four years at the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. He served as special assistant to the assistant director of labor for OSHA from 1998 to 2001, and directed the safety and health program for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees from 1982 to 1998. A native of Palos Verdes Estates, California, Barab is a 1975 graduate of Claremont McKenna College in California and received a Master's degree in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University in 1978.

To expand on Barab’s background, consider these points:

1. Barab becomes the first blogger to head OSHA. From 2003 to 2007, he was the creator and author of the award-winning weblog, Confined Space.

2. Barab was point man for the ergonomics standard-setting work done during Charles Jeffress's tenure. In 1998, he was appointed a special assistant to the assistant secretary for OSHA, serving as national labor liaison, ergonomics coordinator and other duties.

3. He had this to say on his blog about the demise of the ergo standard in 2001:

"After 10 years of struggle, OSHA finally issued an ergonomics standard in November 2000. The Republican-controlled Congress, with virtually no debate, repealed those protections in March 2001. They used a little-known, and never-before-used law called the Congressional Review Act, a piece of legislation, tacked onto a larger bill way back in the early Gingrich years, a bomb lying dormant and unnoticed until it was activated when Bush Administration was selected.

No one knew until it was too late -- and millions of American workers now pay the price every year in painful disability. "

4. A couple of Barab soundbites, (of which there is no lack of) from his acceptance speech at the 2004 American Public Health Association meeting, upon receiving the Lorin Kerr award which “recognizes a younger activist for their sustained and outstanding efforts and dedication to improving the lives of workers.”:

"We need to have an American workforce that is already educated and pre-mobilized. So how do we spread the outrage, put back the tears and politicize workers? "

"We need to make it clear that the right to a safe workplace wasn’t bestowed upon us by concerned politicians or employers who were finally convinced that “Safety Pays.” The right to a safe workplace was won only after a long and bitter fight by workers, unions and public health advocates. It was soaked in the blood of hundreds of thousands of coal miners, factory and construction workers. And the current movement to transform the agency into nothing but a coordinator of voluntary alliances is a betrayal of that promise and those lives."

"While I was searching for the meaning of life the other day and I happened upon a list of Saul Alinsky’s rules for effective action. Two of them struck a note with me: 1. Ridicule is man's most potent weapon. 2. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy. "

Barab of course has a Facebook profile. He lists his favorite politicians: Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Democratic Party, Al Franken and Ted Kennedy. His favorite organizations: National Public Radio, Environmental Working Group, the Employee Free Choice Act, the Service Employees International Union, and the Center for American Progress. Favorite celebs: Bill Maher, George Orwell, Rachel Maddow, Arianna Huffington, Paul Krugman.

A final note: It seems awkward that Labor Secretary Solis has named a top deputy in the OSHA hierarchy (Barab) before filling the top job at OSHA. It’s like naming a deputy before the new sheriff comes to town. This leads some OSHA-watchers to believe Barab may transition from “acting” to “permanent” OSHA chief in the coming months.

One source disputes this, saying the front-runner for the OSHA chief job is David Michaels, PhD. MPH, research professor and interim chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University. Michaels was assistant secretary of energy for environment, safety, and health under President Clinton. In a post he wrote for the blog “The Pump Handle,” Michael said: “(former OSHA boss) Mr. Foulke’s arguments are reminiscent of the climate change deniers who oppose government action on global warming, claiming the science is ‘not settled enough’ for OSHA to do what needs to be done. The agency’s claims about the number of new regulations published are also quite misleading.”

Michaels is also author of the book, “Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health” (Oxford University Press, 2008).

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