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Yawn: Another acting OSHA chief comes to town (4/13)

April 13, 2009
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In the words of a safety professional whose career pre-dates the beginning of OSHA in 1971, the recent response to Labor Secretary Solis’ appointment of Jordan Barab as acting OSHA administrator and full-time deputy has been “underwhelming.”

The silence is somewhat surprising given Barab’s well-known (in Washington anyway) background as an avowed OSHA activist, a leading proponent of OSHA’s failed ergonomics standard, and his long-time ties to organized labor. He was a consultant to the AFL-CIO Safety and Health Department from 2001 to 2002, and directed the safety and health program for AFSCME from 1982 to 1998.

Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director for safety and health, said on the AFL-CIO’s safety blog that Barab is an “excellent choice” for OSHA deputy assistant secretary. “He has decades of experience in safety and health working in the labor movement, at OSHA and in the House of Representatives on a broad range of issues. He has a deep commitment and dedication to protecting workers and will bring to OSHA the kind of energy and leadership that is sorely needed to move the agency in a new direction,” she said.

In an email Barab sent out Saturday to the distribution list of his now-discontinued blog, “Confined Space,” he issued this call to action: “Starting Monday I'll be Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary at OSHA, running the agency until the Senate confirms the real Assistant Secretary. There is an enormous amount that needs to be done at OSHA and I hope to at least be able to lay the groundwork for the new Assistant Secretary.”

The lack of a noticeable reaction to the Obama administration’s first significant decision affecting workplace safety and health (several rulemaking procedures are being pushed along and enforcement already appears to have ratcheted up a notch) could stem from Barab becoming OSHA’s 14th acting administrator in its 38-year-history. The agency has been run more often by acting bosses (14) than presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed bosses (11). OSHA-watchers understand that no matter how much of an activist yearning an acting OSHA chief brings to their temporary position, it is still but an interim move with limited leverage.

After Barab was named acting administrator last week, ISHN emailed approximately 100 expert EHS contacts for their reaction. We heard from less than a half-dozen. Here’s a sampling of comments:

“This is a major disappointment. More of the same. Mostly likely it sounds like continuing gridlock. Cynically, I knew they could never make the stretch to reach out to a health and safety professional with a diverse background, rather than a DC insider.”

“Labor got what it wanted. A Peg (Seminario) lite. Let the partisan gridlock begin. There will be no other chief nominated, in my view. The new nominee would need to have the same pro-labor, death-to-management credentials of Barab. And now (Barab) gets to revive his abandoned ergo baby as the poster child of OSHA, which is exactly the most polarizing and least productive thing that OSHA could do right now. Well, back to managing risk… and forgetting about OSHA.”

“After all the public homilies etc. from ORC (a Washington-based EHS consultancy) and others about getting politics out of OSHA, this is a consummate aggressive political agenda appointment. To me it is confirmation that folks should unlock themselves from OSHA.”

Whoever follows Barab as the real OSHA boss will have to counter widespread OSHA fatigue and cynicism among the rank and file health and safety professionals if OSHA wants to seriously engage pros in a “new direction” campaign.

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