Since President Obama was elected last November, the intriguing and little-understood behind-the-scenes competition of corralling support for various OSHA chief candidates has been percolating along.

It’s a game played with careful discretion. Consider: if you come out and publicly endorse a certain individual, and that person fails to get the nod, you possibly stand to lose leverage and access with the winner, who might just hold a grudge.

For that reason, along with other factors, the American Industrial Hygiene Association is not promoting any one person for the OSHA job. What it has done is provide Labor Secretary Solis “minimum qualifications” for the position. These include: a lifelong commitment to health and safety; comprehensive academic training in occupational health and safety; at least 15 years of technical experience in occupational health and safety; proven management experience in implementing health and safety programs; and “the vision and ability to build coalitions and consensus among diverse groups to effectively promote a health and safety agenda accepted by all.”

Naturally, one can draw up a list of stringent qualifications that serve to eliminate all but the candidate or candidates you secretly want to see get the job.

Few prominent safety and health professionals, who have held leadership positions in the professional societies, will go on record supporting a specific candidate. They want to ensure good working relations with whoever gets the OSHA job. The same goes for the NIOSH directorship, for that matter.

There are exceptions. The California Governmental Affairs Committee (CGAC) of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) in December sent a letter to then Labor Secretary-designate Solis recommending the administration appoint Dr. John Howard as OSHA chief. Howard was director of Cal/OSHA from 1991 to 2002.

Says a longtime labor safety activist in California: “I have absolutely nothing bad to say about John. He is brilliant. He’s honest. He actually works; he’s hands-on. He’ll tell you what he can do for you, what he can’t, and what he needs from you to make a decision.”

Local or regional stakeholders have less to lose if their choices don’t pan out, compared to their national parent organizations whose government affairs in Washington work depends on access to the highest levels of OSHA.

Politicians do not face the same concerns about losing clout as the professional societies. They expect to be courted, via emails, phone calls, letters and personal visits, by contenders and their supporters for agency jobs such as the top OSHA post. To the winners of such courtship go letters of support from Senators and Congressmen and women to either the White House or the Secretary of Labor.

Soon after Obama’s election, for instance, sources tell us that former OSHA boss Charles Jeffress and Jordon Barab, senior labor policy advisor for the House Education and Labor Committee, began making calls on behalf of Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s chief spokesperson on occupational safety and health issues for decades. Sources also say organized labor from top officials on down put on a full-court press in Washington, making it clear Seminario was labor’s consensus choice for the OSHA job. Soon, a letter of support came from the office of Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat long active in workplace safety and health issues. Sources say Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office also supported Seminario.

Hamid Arabzadeh, an industrial hygiene consultant in Irvine, California, has proven to be an aggressive and adept campaigner for the job. According to sources, he has garnered letters of support from Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), Democratic House Speaker 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 an irony common to the political world, Dr. Howard, the most qualified person to head OSHA, according to many off-the-record interviews we have conducted (“Hands-down, it’s no contest, he’s the best qualified,” said one source), has probably elicited the least amount of public support. The fact that he is a registered Republican and served for six years in the Bush administration has proven to be baggage that Dr. Howard has found difficult to shed, sources tell us.

In February of this year, Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), New York State AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes, New York City Central Labor Council President Jack Ahern, 9/11 responders, lower Manhattan residents and others gathered near Ground Zero to encourage President Obama to reappoint Dr. John Howard as the federal government’s 9/11 Health Coordinator. Maloney, Nadler, Reps. Peter King (R-NY) and Michael McMahon (D-NY), and ten of their House colleagues sent a letter to the president recommending Dr. Howard for the post.

“There is still much work to be done in coordinating and administering health care for 9/11 first responders, workers, residents, students and others,” said Rep. Nadler. “Dr. John Howard has demonstrated expertise and skill in overseeing 9/11 health efforts and there was never any justifiable reason for removing him from his post. I wholeheartedly recommend re-hiring Dr. Howard for the job.”

If only Dr. Howard were interested. He may well be, to an extent, but sources tell us his first choice is to land the OSHA chief job.

Kathryn O’Leary Higginsa name that came to us only in late March as a potential OSHA chief, might have the most impressive array of supporters in the Democratic Party. Higgins has extensive experience in the Department of Labor. She served as deputy secretary of the Department of Labor (July 1997-May 1999), chief of staff to Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (January 1993-February 1995), and began her career in government in 1969 as a manpower specialist with the Employment and Training Administration in Department of Labor.

“I’ve made a dozen calls about her, and the verdict is unanimous: Few people know Washington as well, and how to maneuver in it,” Reich wrote in his 1997 memoir, “Locked in the Cabinet.” “Her annual St. Patrick’s Day party is a Washington fixture. Another Irish pol, she loves the game of politics. She’s also interested in the substance. She’s devoted most of her adult life to the cause of helping working people make something more of their lives.”

Since 2006, Higgins has worked directly in the safety field as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). In 2008, she was described in a Culver City, Calif., online newspaper article about a Los Angeles commuter-freight train crash that killed 25 people as “sassy” and known to sometimes have “difficulty keeping her boiling Irish temper tucked beneath her collar… (she is) a lady very conscious of her status as an outspoken Democrat.”