For decades workplace safety and health experts have shaken their heads over the vast resource gap and penalty powers separating the Environmental Protection Agency (staff of approximately 18,000; fiscal year 2010 budget request of approximately $10 billion; noncompliance penalties commonly in the millions of dollars) from the threadbare staffing and funding of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (staff of approximately 2,150; fiscal year 2009 budget of $513 million; enforcement penalties rarely in the millions.)

Today is Earth Day, an appropriate time to once and for all cease and desist with comparisons between EPA and OSHA.

Despite both agencies sharing a common history (created in a strangely Nixonian surge of social activism in the early 1970s), it’s game over. No contest. If the occupational safety and health community needed any more evidence, and by this point it really doesn’t, just look at events regarding EPA and OSHA since President Obama’s election last November.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson was nominated to lead the agency by then President-elect Obama on December 15, 2008 and confirmed by the Senate on January 23, 2009.

Today, April 22, President Obama has yet to nominate an OSHA chief. On April 13, Jordan Barab assumed the post of acting OSHA boss.

EPA Administrator Jackson has her own home page on the EPA web site — www.epa.gov/administrator

For OSHA acting chief Barab, the only info the OSHA web site is this: “Jordan Barab, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health.” No bio. No photo. No nothing.

In a memo to all EPA employees posted on her homepage January 23, EPA chief Jackson made clear “five priorities that will receive my personal attention:” reducing greenhouse gas emissions; improving air quality; managing chemical risks; cleaning up hazardous waste sites; and protecting America’s water.

With only an interim agency head who cannot pre-empt the plans of his eventual full-time successor, it is impossible for OSHA to offer a similarly coherent preview of its priorities. At this point, OSHA’s major priorities are a guessing game.

Meanwhile, EPA has wasted little time in acting on its stated priorities. On April 17, agency administrator Jackson signed a proposed finding indicating that six greenhouse gases pose a threat to the health and welfare of the U.S. population. Said Jackson on her homepage: “Today's announcement should remind all Americans that change has come for the environment. Change has come to the EPA.”

Change at OSHA is similarly expected, but it’s all talk until a full-time assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health is confirmed by the Senate. With Barab being tabbed as an acting head, OSHA-watchers in Washington fear a full-time appointment could be delayed. It could be toward the end of 2009, a full year possibly after Obama’s election, that OSHA gets a leader who can articulate OSHA’s direction and priorities such as EPA’s Jackson has done.

Until then, OSHA will ramp up enforcement, sources tell ISHN, as area and regional offices get the message from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis that she expects the agency to be a determined enforcer. But otherwise, the agency will be hamstrung to making news by announcing innocuous developments such as these from the month of April: a revision of OSHA’s field manual; exhibiting at the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Expo; and issuing safety “quick tips” for the cleaning industry.

Meanwhile, EPA is making major news. In addition to issuing the “proposed endangerment finding” that “in both magnitude and probability, climate change is an enormous problem,” on April 21 Administrator Jackson signed a final rule to reinstate stricter reporting requirements for industrial and federal facilities that release toxic substances that threaten human health and the environment. The final rule reinstates Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) reporting requirements that were replaced by the TRI Burden Reduction Rule in December 2006. The 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, signed by President Obama on March 11, 2009, mandated that prior TRI reporting requirements be reestablished. These changes will apply to all TRI reports due July 1, 2009.

For two federal agencies charged with protecting vital U.S. resources (the environment for EPA and millions of worksites and workers for OSHA), the White House has put EPA on a fast track to assert its role, while OSHA is on no track at the moment, and likely will be for months to come.