The process of picking the next OSHA chief is beginning to resemble ten little, nine little, eight little Indians, as of late March, according to our interviews with Washington insiders and supporters of individuals who once were leading candidates.

These sources would only speak to us off-the-record. Many have relationships with all the leading candidates in what one source describes as the “rather small health and safety professional family,” and do not want to jeopardize future access and working partnerships. In other instances, sources represent organizations and are not authorized to publicly speak for their employers.

Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s leading spokesperson on workplace safety and health issues since the early 1990s and an AFL-CIO health and safety official since 1977, was for several months after the November election considered all but a cinch for the top OSHA job.

Not anymore. She is no longer in the running, multiple sources tell us. According to one source, her name was officially withdrawn in a meeting between AFL-CIO President George Sweeney and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on Friday, March 20. Another source confirmed Seminario was no longer a candidate, citing conversations he had with Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office.

Dr. John Howard, former NIOSH director, is also out, according to sources. Dr. Howard, Seminario, and industrial hygiene consultant Hamid Arabzadeh were widely thought to comprise the three names on a short list soon to be submitted to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis for her final decision,

What has happened in the past two weeks?

In recent weeks sources told us 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 deliberated if Seminario was in effect a lobbyist, something that would very likely rule her out, due to President Obama’s vow to bar lobbyists from influential political appointments. According to some sources, the White House decided Seminario indeed could be categorized as a lobbyist.

But since Seminario’s lobbying was only a small part of her job, a loophole could have allowed the White House to go ahead and name her OSHA chief. Why didn’t it happen?

From sources we’ve gleaned three possible explanations. One has to do with the lobbyist tag. The second: the White House’s decision on Seminario could have been affected by the intense fighting over the Employee Free Choice Act now being waged 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.

For the White House to throw its weight behind labor’s number one legislative priority, and then turn around and name a long-time union official to OSHA, would be rubbing salt in the open wounds of business groups such as the U.S Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, according to several sources. It could also create the perception the White House was completely turning the Department of Labor into the Department of Organized Labor, according to sources. Labor Secretary Solis has a long history of supporting organized labor causes in her former Los Angeles congressional district; she benefited greatly from labor support in her congressional campaigns; and she happens to have a father and mother who both were union members.

One source, however, offers a third explanation. He tells us Seminario was never, from day one, seriously considered for the OSHA job by the administration. According to this source, an administration official told him, “Peg cannot have this job.” The source said given President Obama’s pledge to put science before ideology, it would be politically damaging to name a union safety and health advocate since 1977 to the top OSHA job. This despite the fact that Seminario earned a master’s degree in industrial hygiene from the Harvard School of Public Health and an undergraduate degree in biological sciences from Wellesley College.

Dr. Howard’s candidacy, supported by admirers of what some call his visionary tenure at NIOSH and his stint as 9/11 Ground Zero Health Coordinator, when he bluntly told the New York City press his program was inadequately funded by the Bush administration, was nonetheless hurt by his serving six years in the Bush administration, according to sources. Supporters pointed out Howard served as Cal/OSHA chief under a Democratic governor in California, and was more interested in public and occupational health and safety than political agendas. But partisan politics does seem to have had a hand in doing in Dr. Howard’s candidacy. Sources tell us Dr. Howard wants to remain in Washington in some leadership capacity, and might still be nominated to return as NIOSH director, or as the so-called 9/11 “health czar.”

This would seem to leave Hamid Arabzadeh as the one name all of the sources we contacted agree is still on the short list.
In fact, one source says Arabzadeh’s name is now off the short list. Big labor is not going to get its number one pick for the job, Seminario, but sources believe the unions still retain a “thumbs up, thumbs down” veto power over the OSHA chief selection. And Arabzadeh’s years as corporate manager of industrial hygiene for the UNOCAL Corporation (1992 to 1997) win him few friends among organized labor. In labor’s eyes, he is not the pro-worker safety advocate unions have been waiting to take the reins at OSHA since Dr. Eula Bingham ran the agency with an activist’s fervor from April 1977 to January 1981.

Says Fran Schreiberg, a volunteer attorney for Worksafe, a California worker safety advocacy group she headed for years: “It’s mind-boggling to me that after 30 years working in this field, I haven’t heard of his name as someone promoting themselves as pro-labor and pro-worker.”

Arabzadeh is a mystery to many longtime OSHA-watchers in Washington, and most safety and health professionals outside southern California. Arabzadeh was born in Iran and left the country at age 16, three years before the revolution that brought the Islamic mullahs to power. He did his undergraduate work at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, followed by a graduate degree from McGill University’s School of Occupational and Environmental Health in Science-Occupational Health and Safety.

Arabzadeh owns HRA Environmental Consultants, Inc., in Irvine, Calif., and according to HRA’s Web site, he is a lecturer at the University of California, Irvine Schools of Medicine and Engineering, and has taught at UCLA. He teaches courses in advanced environmental health, pollution prevention engineering, hazardous materials management and environmental and occupational health.

In July, 1998, Arabzadeh was fired by the governing board of the Los Angeles Unified School District from his position as director of environmental health and safety for the LA Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school district, due to what the board’s counsel would only describe publicly as performance issues. The vote was four to one in favor of dismissal, with two abstentions, according to special closed-door session minutes we obtained via a Google search.

Arabzadeh addressed the board in the meeting and stated his national board certifications required him to adhere to the strongest codes of ethics and standards. He claimed public health and safety were in danger, and made allegations that staff of the district’s Environmental Safety and Health Branch were asked to change reports, and that files were missing, documents shredded, and information requested by board members “sanitized’ by district management before distribution.

Arabzadeh’s attorney claimed he was being terminated because of his testimony in front of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (investigating the construction of the Belmont Learning Center atop an active oil field plagued by explosive and toxic gases) and for being a whistleblower. According to his attorney, Arabzadeh was aware of contaminated schools and contaminated property being purchased for future schools, and she told the board she believed many of the allegations presented by the district staff to the board regarding Arabzadeh’s performance “were a desperate attempt to fabricate wrongdoings after the fact.”

Arabzadeh’s team of supporters for his OSHA candidacy tell us he feels to this day he has nothing to hide from that episode 11 years ago, is proud of the stand he took, and has been forthright in telling legislators on Capitol Hill about the circumstances surrounding his dismissal.

It doesn’t seem to have tainted the support Arabzadeh has mustered on the Hill. Sources tell us Arabzadeh has secured letters of support from Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-CA), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the U.S. Speaker of the House, as well as other Congressional leaders.

Still, it appears Big Labor is casting a dark shadow over Arabzadeh’s prospects of getting the brass ring at OSHA.