Acting OSHA administrator Jordan Barab made his first trek to Capitol Hill last Thursday (April 30) to testify at a hearing held by the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections of the House Committee on Education and Labor. The hearing was held to examine lapses in OSHA’s targeted inspection program for repeat penalty offenders, “the Enhanced Enforcement Program,” (EEP) as cited in a recent report by the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Barab’s testimony represented his first public comments since coming to OSHA as deputy assistant secretary for occupational safety and health and acting OSHA chief in mid-April. One source toldISHNhe believes Barab has a “50-50 chance” of assuming the permanent OSHA administrator position.

“The EEP was initiated in September, 2003 to help OSHA focus its resources on those employers who are indifferent to their obligations under the OSH Act, concentrating limited enforcement assets on those employers who not only failed to meet their obligations under the OSH Act, but who also appeared unlikely to decide on their own to improve working conditions at their workplaces,” Barab explained. “OSHA had discovered that a number of employers continued to expose workers to very serious dangers even after receiving OSHA citations for worker exposure to hazards that caused serious injuries and fatalities.

“In 2008, the EEP was amended in response to OSHA staff concerns that the program was not consistently accomplishing its purpose to focus on recalcitrant employers,” Barab added.

“In order for the EEP to be effective, OSHA area, regional, and national offices must accurately identify which employers are in need of enhanced enforcement and then apply its enhanced enforcement tools to these recalcitrant employers. The OIG report pointed out that this has not always occurred.

Barab announced a series of moves OSHA will take to bolster its enforcement efforts for so-called worst actors:

“The agency has established the EEP Revision Task Force,” said Barab. “This task force, comprised of personnel from the Directorate of Enforcement Programs as well as regional administrators, their deputies, and departmental attorneys, is designing a new program, which we are preliminarily renaming the Severe Violators Inspection Program (SVIP), so that we will be able to identify and inspect recalcitrant employers more effectively. The SVIP will be a comprehensive revision of the existing EEP, focusing more on large companies and less on small businesses.

“Some changes under consideration for the program include mandatory – not recommended – follow-up inspections, more inspections of other establishments of an identified company, and additional enhanced settlement provisions. The new program will include a more intensive examination of an employer’s history for systemic problems that would trigger additional mandatory inspections.

“Among the issues I will be looking at are whether OSHA is referring the proper number of (criminal prosecution cases relating to recalcitrant employers) to the Department of Justice and how we can work better with DOJ to prosecute these cases.”

Barab announced the formation of a new National Emphasis Program of specialized inspections focusing on flavoring chemicals (diacetyl). NEPs already exist for the hazards of combustible dust, amputations, lead, shipbreaking, crystalline silica, and trenching/excavations.

He also said OSHA will be adding inspectors to fulfill its responsibilities under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and President Obama is requesting increased funding for OSHA in the 2010 budget.

Barab concluded with a word about OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program and cooperative alliances. Washington sources have expected the Obama administration to back away from the Bush Administration’s warm embrace of the VPP, and Barab did not disappoint:

“In order to direct more of OSHA’s existing resources into enforcement and to provide time to address concerns in an upcoming GAO (Government Accountability Office) Report on the efficacy of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program, I have informed the field staff that we will suspend the previous administration’s practice of establishing goals for new Voluntary Protection Program sites and Alliances.”