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Industrial hygienists, House member write Labor Department supporting Hamid Arabzadeh for OSHA chief post (4/1)

April 1, 2009
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Who is Hamid Arabzadeh, born in Iran, educated at McGill University in Montreal, owner of HRA Environmental Consultants in Irvine, Calif., a college lecturer, former director of global industrial hygiene for UNOCAL Corporation, former director of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Environmental Health and Safety Branch, former university EHS manager, possessor of credentials including Certified Industrial Hygienist, Certified Safety Professional, Certified Hazardous Materials Manager, Registered Environmental Assessor, hailed by supporters as a courageous whistleblower for alleging misconduct in the LA School District’s EHS operations, a passionate advocate of human rights in Iran, a Fellow of the American Industrial Hygiene Association and past AIHA local section president — and a leading contender to be assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health in the U.S. Department of Labor?

In a 2007 speech to the annual general meeting of the AIHA British Columbia Yukon local section, Arabzadeh said, “Today’s professionals need to be business partners, but not forgetting that our primary professional/ethical responsibility is the protection of people inside and outside the fence line. Having said this, we need to be able to express industrial hygiene outputs as business outputs. Challenges of pushing for health and safety to become part of the cultural fabric of organizations, encouraging senior management to support initiatives from the top down, and early engagement of the industrial hygienist continue to be struggles for many practicing professionals today.”

Arabzadeh is unknown to many safety and health professionals outside of the industrial hygiene field, but he has lined up an impressive array of Congressional support in recent months. He has garnered letters of recommendation from Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and House of Representative members Loretta Sanchez, Laura Richardson, Brian Bilbray, Ed Royce and George Radonovich, all from California. Bilbray, Royce and Radonovich are Republicans.

In the past two weeks, Arabzadeh has become the target of an organized labor counter-attack on his candidacy. This comes after the failure of the AFL-CIO’s aggressive campaign to secure the top OSHA job for Peg Seminario, an AFL-CIO safety and health official since 1977 and head of the union’s safety and health efforts since the early 1990s. Seminario dropped out of the running — perhaps due what the White House decided was official lobbying by her for asbestos compensation legislation and for increased funding for health monitoring and medical treatment of 9/11 Ground Zero responders and residents in Manhattan, or perhaps due to the Obama administration’s fears of losing the support of moderate Democrats and Republicans by going overboard for union priorities such as the “Employee Free Choice Act” and a worker safety advocate at the head of OSHA.

Unions have long distrusted management-types from the business world coming in to run OSHA. They claim an inherent conflict-of-interest on the part of corporate industrial hygienists and safety professionals charged with protecting employees, yet dependent on management bosses for performance evaluations and income.

In this respect, Arabzadeh is at the center of a long-standing and sometimes bitter battle between union safety advocates and safety and health professionals from the corporate world, and their professional societies. Some union safety officials have gone so far as to call professionals “lapdogs” of industry who ultimately put their paychecks above worker protections. This accusation, of course, outrages the professional community, who point to their code of ethics that dictates unbiased conduct and who vigorously defend their integrity and credibility.

Several letters of support for Arabzadeh’s candidacy sent to Deputy Labor Secretary Seth Harris this week show the depth of feeling this debate elicits. According to Washington sources, Harris is compiling the short list of OSHA candidate finalists to be forwarded to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Her nomination of OSHA’s next chief is expected by mid-April.

“I have seen reports that Mr. Hamid Arabzadeh, who I have previously recommended as the inspired choice for OSHA administrator, is somehow not sympathetic to the interests of workers and Labor because he once worked for an industrial corporation. Nothing could be further from the truth,” wrote Gary Rosenblum, a certified industrial hygienist (CIH) and risk manager for the City of Palm Desert, Calif., in a letter to Harris.

“I have known Hamid for over 20 years, both when he worked for Unocal and after, and his interest and commitment to the occupational safety and health working men and women is outstanding and unwavering.

“By way of background,” Rosenblum continued, “I also worked for an industrial corporation, ARCO, for over 17 years in occupational health and safety and I count myself as a staunch supporter of Labor and improving the safety and health conditions of working men and women everywhere. Not only do I reject the notion that working for industry means one must be ‘anti-labor,’ but I would insist that until one has been inside a large corporation, and inside industry advocacy groups and their meetings, one does not really understand how to manage and overcome industry resistance to successfully accomplish true national progress in worker safety and health.

“Time after time, I have seen Hamid not accept the upper management’s edicts on worker safety and health, and fight from the inside to achieve meaningful safety and health changes that could not have otherwise been accomplished by attacking from the outside. Organized Labor advocates may not have seen or heard of the many times he has intervened on behalf of the safety and health of workers at Unocal, or more recently in small unorganized workplaces from metal shops to farms, actually managing the demands of his clients until they relented and accepted how improved worker safety would not ruin their businesses.

“For Hamid, that is the bottom line- results that improve worker safety and health- and that is what would make him an excellent pragmatic leader of OSHA.”

A second letter to Harris was written on Arabzadeh’s behalf this week by Keith Tait, CIH and certified safety professional (CSP) director of environment, health & safety at the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Plattsburgh, N.Y.

“Much like Gary, I worked in the private sector, primarily for Pfizer Inc for 21 years, and was privileged to have an important role in developing and implementing health & safety programs and practices to protect workers, including our employees, contractors and clients worldwide.”

Tait went on to state, “It is very unfair and unwise to stereotype (health and safety professionals) based on false generalizations; rather, it is more valuable for the future OSHA Administrator to have served in more than one role during their career, much like Hamid Arabzadeh. Serving in only one career capacity often limits our understanding of the breadth and challenges within America’s workforce, regulatory governance, economic dynamics and their relation to the health & safety profession. In this regard, Hamid has a uniquely diverse and qualified background that many other candidates’ lack.

He concludes: “I believe that Hamid is a uniquely qualified candidate for the OSHA Administrator in this regards. We need a strong leader who has a diverse background, not solely serving in one capacity throughout their career. It’s important to select a leader who has developed and managed health & safety programs within public, private and academic / health care organizations, as well as, consulting firms. Once again, I believe Mr. Hamid Arabzadeh brings this invaluable knowledge, experience and perspective to the table over many other candidates.”

Arabzadeh has also secured recently a letter of support from House member Laura Richardson, who represents the 37th Congressional District, which includes the city of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Carson, Compton, and Signal Hill. Richardson has been an influential figure in the Obama transition team, representing the Congressional Black Caucus, and has wide contacts throughout the administration.

Abrazadeh’s supporters have told ISHN in a number of off-the-record interviews that he is actually “pro-labor” by dint of his varied professional experiences. Were he to get the top OSHA post, they say he would work to make sure organized labor has a very strong voice, work specifically with Seminario and the AFL-CIO, and focus on strong enforcement and breaking the political gridlock that has trapped the agency in its own confined space of very limited action in recent years.

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