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OSHA chief selection process heats up (3/16)

March 16, 2009
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The process of picking the next OSHA chief is picking up steam, multiple sources tell ISHN.

Three candidates continue to dominate back channel discussions in Washington: Hamid Arabzadeh, MS, CIH, CSP, REA, CHMM, who owns HRA Environmental Consultants, Inc., Irvine, Calif.; former NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard; and Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s leading spokesperson on workplace safety and health issues for more than two decades.

All three want the top OSHA post, according to sources, and per usual with political appointments, each candidate carries pros and cons into the vetting process, which is accelerating, sources tell ISHN . Until this week, most OSHA-watchers believed Labor Secretary Hilda Solis would announce her nominee sometime in April. Now several sources tell ISHN an announcement could come as soon as this week, or still be weeks away. Such is the unpredictable nature of the political appointment game.

Sources say Seth Harris, recently named by President Obama to be deputy secretary of labor, the number two spot at the Department of Labor, and Emily Spieler, the Dean of Northeastern University’s Law School and Obama Transition Team leader on issues related to OSHA, will be major influences in compiling a short list of three names that Harris will forward to Labor Secretary Solis. Arabzadeh, Howard and Seminario are said to be the three names at the moment. That could change before vetting is completed.

This is how fluid the process is: six weeks ago most sources told ISHN Seminario was close to a shoo-in for the job. Her candidacy benefited from early and aggressive campaigning by an array of union leaders, coupled with the belief President Obama wanted an activist OSHA and owed political payback to unions for pouring $250 million into last year’s election.

But in recent weeks sources told ISHN Seminario’s star was fading due to White House fears that her advocacy for increased funding for health monitoring and medical treatment of 9/11 Ground Zero responders and residents in Manhattan, and her earlier support for legislation compensating asbestos exposure victims, could be construed as lobbying. According to several sources, White House lawyers are at the moment trying to decide if Seminario is in effect a lobbyist, something that would very likely rule her out due to the conflict of interest controversies that hindered or shot down other Obama selections, such as Tom Daschle for Secretary of Health and Human Service.

Still, as of this week, organized labor has a full-court press on for Seminario, according to sources. She also has the support of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office, according to one source. The White House’s decision on Seminario could be affected by the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act now pending in the U.S. Senate. The legislation, which is organized labor’s number one national policy priority, would permit workers to form unions by getting a majority of workers to sign union authorization cards to join without having to hold a secret ballot election, and it mandates that if employers and workers cannot reach a contract within 120 days, a government arbitrator intervene and set terms.

Congressional passage of the bill, which is a battle royale now underway on Capitol Hill, could make it easier for the Obama administration to bypass Seminario for a less partisan pick.

This is where Dr. Howard and Hamid Arabzadeh come into play. Some sources say Howard’s candidacy, supported by admirers of his tenure at NIOSH, is hurt by his serving for six years in the Bush administration. Supporters point out Howard served as Cal/OSHA chief under a Democratic governor in California and is far more interested in public and occupational health and safety than political agendas. That could be to his detriment in D.C. Some sources tell ISHN Howard could be tripped up by political forces that run much stronger at OSHA than NIOSH.

Several sources tell ISHN they are still scratching their head trying to figure out how Arabzadeh’s candidacy has gained noticeable traction in recent weeks. Sources say he has made frequent trips to Washington since January to line up political support on Capitol Hill, and his political connections are extensive. One source told ISHN Arabzadeh has secured letters of support from Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the U.S. Speaker of the House, as well as other Congressional leaders. Sources give Arabzadeh high marks for his political networking, generally agree on his technical health and safety expertise, but some question if he could manage a federal bureaucracy. His years as corporate manager of industrial hygiene for the UNOCAL Corporation (1992 to 1997) win him few friends among organized labor.

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

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