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Sudden impact: Labor Secretary Solis's first year at DOL (2/23)

February 23, 2010

Hilda Solis was confirmed as Secretary of Labor almost one year ago to the day, February 24, 2009. Her boss, President Obama is now widely criticized and questioned in the press as an indecisive leader.

After a year running the Department of Labor, and especially when it comes to OSHA, no one in the safety and health world would today call Hilda Solis indecisive.

She is the most energetic DOL boss regarding OSHA issues since Elizabeth Dole in the Bush 1 administration, two decades ago. Safety and health pros expect a more active OSHA when Democrats occupy the White House and control Capitol Hill, but Solis’s OSHA shows more signs of life than at any time during President Bill Clinton’s eight years in office, save for the last-gasp ergonomics rule issued at the very end of Clinton’s tenure.

Clinton’s first DOL head, Robert Reich, was a Harvard academic, not the child of two union parents, as Solis is. Reich’s pick to lead OSHA was a bureaucrat, Joe Dear. Solis picked a union man, Jordan Barab, to be acting OSHA chief, then tabbed Dr. David Michaels, a public health epidemiologist with a long paper trail of articles and speeches weighing in on OSHA issues, to be the agency’s permanent head.

The winds have changed 180 degrees since Ms. Solis took over. Even before Jordan Barab was named acting OSHA chief last April, she had made decisive moves regarding OSHA.

In her first 100 days, according to a summary provided on the DOL web site “in addition to undoing past actions by the Bush Administration, Secretary Solis has taken several important steps to further protect and promote the welfare of workers.” Most notable was the push for a new regulation to protect workers from diacetyl exposure, which can cause a sometimes fatal respiratory illnesses in workers exposed to it, producing a condition popularly referred to as ‘Popcorn Workers Lung.

When Barab came aboard, Ms. Solis accompanied him to the annual conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers last June in San Antonio. At the ASSE meeting, Ms. Solis and Mr. Barab both literally used fighting words to describe their vision of OSHA’s mission.

“My parents instilled in me many values - but most importantly they taught me to fight for what is right,” said Ms. Solis. “These are the values I bring with me to the Department of Labor.”

The message was clear: the sheriff is back. SWAT teams will swoop in on Texas construction contractors. VPP is no longer a sacred cow. Industry recordkeeping is going to be scrutinized. So are state plan OSHA programs.

Ms. Solis told the ASSE crowd: “OSHA's renewal of vigorously enforcing its standards and regulations means employers will no longer be able to say that it costs too much or takes too much time to address worker safety and health. There will be no excuses for negligence in protecting workers' from injury, illness and death.

“OSHA's leadership and I are of one voice, advocating vigorous enforcement of laws that protect workers.”

That “one voice” is not mere rhetoric. In a January 2010 speech, OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels sasserted “We're a regulatory and enforcement agency and we're going to act like it.”

Safety and health pros will see first-hand how Michael’s and Solis’s definition of a regulatory and enforcement agency acts in the next three years.