For the past 10-20 years industry has been able to turn a deaf ear to OSHA by and large, as the agency was muzzled by the Bush administration and has its mission muddled by the Clinton administrations attempts at “reinventing” OSHA into a friendlier, more consultative agency.

Those days are gone. Organized labor today has more friends and access at the Department of Labor than at any time since the 1970s. Both of Labor Secretary Solis’s parents were staunch union members. Acting chief Barab was a national union safety director for much of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Both Solis’s and Barab’s early speeches have been filled with “fightin’ words” to get across the message that OSHA as cop is back on the beat.

Consider this except from an August speech Barab gave to the United Steelworkers union:

“After almost thirty years in this field, I find it astonishing, aggravating and insulting that we are still fighting these battles for basic workers' rights in far too many workplaces across our nation.

“Progress has not come easy for workers in this country. Every incremental improvement in working conditions has been earned with blood and broken bones, in battles won and lost in thousands of workplaces and union halls across the country. Too many of those advances came too late, only after we counted the lives destroyed by workplace hazards that could and should have been prevented.

“As angry as I get about the sometimes maddeningly slow struggle for something as basic as protecting workers, I'm filled with hope when I see the dedicated labor and management health and safety activists in this room.”

With hot rhetoric like this, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are on OSHA alert. In particular, their lawyers are lined up waiting for the agency to make a move at revising the ergonomics rule, which Barab has said is on the table. The National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors is on record opposing Democratic-sponsored “OSHA reform” legislation that would raise enforcement penalty values and make it easier to prosecute employers at worksites where fatalities or multiple injury incidents have occurred.

If the economic climate improves during the next year, clearing skies will make it easier for OSHA to pursue an aggressive enforcement and standards agenda.