Thought Leadership


Grade the Labor Secretary: I give her a “B”

February 10, 2010
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Hilda Solis was confirmed as Secretary of Labor one year ago this month, February 24. Her boss, President Obama, has long since seen his honeymoon end. Now he’s tanking in the public approval polls and being widely chided in the press, and I don’t only mean Fox News, as being an indecisive leader. One news magazine put him on the cover next to Jimmy Carter. Nuff said.

I don’t think anyone in the occupational safety and health world would today call Hilda Solis indecisive. Maybe other things — too aggressive, polarizing, overreaching, pro-union — but not a smooth-talking do-nothing.

For my money, one year into her job she is the most decisive Labor Secretary, when it specifically comes to OSHA affairs, I’ve seen since Elizabeth Dole in the Bush 1 administration.

There really are not many decisions a Labor Secretary has to make about OSHA. The agency’s budget of about $550 million is small potatoes compared to the total Department of Labor budget of about $13 billion. One decision is: how much of a leash, how much freedom, to give the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. Two: Do you have the back of your OSHA boss? Will you provide political cover?

A former high-ranking OSHA official told me years ago: The OSHA chief is only as strong as the Labor Secretary allows him or her to be. Jerry Scannell once told me he wouldn’t have taken the OSHA chief job if not for a pre-hire talk with Elizabeth Dole that convince him he’d have her cooperation, that they were on the same page.

John Henshaw, I’m told by people close to him, would have loved to do more at OSHA than sign alliances and preside over VPP flag raising ceremonies. John would never so say publicly, but he was the right man at the wrong time during his OSHA years. His boss, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, basically ran a STOP OSHA campaign out of her third floor office in the Frances Perkins building. John didn’t stand a chance. As he said publicly more than once, you’ve got to sail with the prevailing winds.

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. The Department made significant strides forward in the development of rule addressing diacetyl by initiating a Small Business Advocacy Review Panel for occupational exposure to food flavorings containing the chemical. Diacetyl is a food flavoring most notably used in the production of microwavable popcorn and has been associated with the development of sometimes fatal respiratory illnesses in workers exposed to it, producing a condition popularly referred to as ‘Popcorn Workers Lung’."

The first budget from Secretary Solis “restores the Labor Department worker protection agencies' staffing so they can vigorously enforce the laws they oversee…” From January 20, 2009 to April 15, 2009, OSHA conducted 8,804 inspections, issued 21,166 citations for violations and levied nearly $27 million in penalties. When the fiery Barab came aboard, Ms. Solis accompanied him to the annual conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers in June. I have to go back to Elizabeth Dole again to recall a safety meeting where both the Labor Secretary and the OSHA chief gave speeches.

At the ASSE meeting, Ms. Solis and Mr. Barab came out swinging, stunning and scaring the cautious pragmatism of many of the safety pros attending. They both literally used fightin’ words. Join with us, partner with us in this fight for better working conditions. “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 couldn’t be clearer: the sheriff is back in town. 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. We are committed to a strong federal role in protecting workplace safety and health, as mandated in the original Act that created the agency.”

That “one voice” is not simple rhetoric. In a January 2010 speech, OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels said with a similar tone of assertion “We're a regulatory and enforcement agency and we're going to act like it.”

It’s far too soon to judge Dr. Michaels. But I give Ms. Solis a solid “B” for her first year overseeing OSHA. As safety activist Ron Hayes told me the other day, “You’d never see OSHA posting fatality cases on its website before now.” I like the new transparency. I like that the Secretary of Labor actually discusses occupational safety and health in her speeches. That she doesn’t reserve her only comments to gloating over another annual decline in workplace injuries. That she’s allowing standards to move forward on global harmonization of hazcom labels and data sheets, confined spaces in construction, silica dust. That she talks with passion about job safety. That she doesn’t look at OSHA and see kryptonite.

As even my most liberal friends used to say about Ronald Reagan, you can agree with him or disagree with him, but you know where he’s coming from and he only does what he said he’d do.

I call that leadership. What do you say?
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