USA - Worker safety advocate named to head fed OSHA

Announcement signals stricter enforcement of workplace safety laws

By Alexandra Berzon
Wed, Apr 8, 2009 (3:50 p.m.)

Jordan Barab, a prominent worker safety advocate and a senior policy adviser overseeing worker safety legislation for the House Education and Labor Committee, will become the acting head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced Wednesday afternoon.

Barab will also become the deputy assistant secretary for OSHA.

The announcement signaled a clear change in direction for the agency towards stricter enforcement of workplace safety laws.

The last permanent OSHA leader was an attorney who helps employers negotiate to reduce OSHA penalties.

As a staff member for Rep. George Miller's, D-Calif., Education and Labor Committee, Barab organized numerous hearings over the last several years to vividly depict the human cost of weak workplace safety enforcement.

That includes a June hearing that featured testimony from George Cole, the brother-in-law of a ironworker who died at CityCenter in the midst of a string of deaths on the Las Vegas Strip.

In addition, Barab served as special assistant to the assistant director of Labor for OSHA from 1998 to 2001, and directed the safety and health program for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees from 1982 to 1998.

Until he began serving for Miller's committee, Barab published an influential workplace safety blog, Confined Spaces, which was often critical of the Bush administration's OSHA.

OSHA regulates workplace safety laws for around half of all states and also keeps a watch on states like Nevada that run their own agencies.

Under the Bush administration, OSHA was accused by workplace safety advocates of stalling to create new safety rules and weakly enforcing existing standards.

An inspector general's report recently found that in cases where employers had previously reported fatalities, the agency had often failed to do follow-up inspections that should have been part of a targeted program.

In a sample of 29 cases where OSHA did not follow up, 16 of the 29 employers subsequently had 20 fatalities.

Workplace safety advocates greeted the news of Barab's acting appointment with appreciation.

"He has a deep commitment and dedication to protecting workers and will bring to OSHA the kind energy and leadership that is sorely needed to move the agency in a new direction," said Peg Seminario, the director of health and safety for the AFL-CIO.

Representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, representing the view of employers, could not be reached for comment.

Until recently, Seminario had been a leading candidate for the position.

But she was removed from consideration because she had registered as a lobbyist to work on health and safety legislation, which violated the administration's lobbying rules.

After that news came out several weeks ago in a trade publication, OSHA reform advocates began to grow restless.

A permanent head was not expected to be named - let alone confirmed - for at least several months, Seminario said.

"Every day that goes by is a day they haven’t started fixing things, and that leaves someone dead or injured," said Unite Here director of health and safety Eric Frumin, in an interview Monday.

Last week, a coalition of public health professionals, worker advocates and family members of workplace safety accident victims, the Protecting Workers Alliance, sent a letter to Solis that named Barab as a favored choice for OSHA chief, along with several academics and other professionals.

Nonetheless, advocates interviewed this week have already noted some signs of change in the agency.

Last month, for example, the labor secretary announced the department would speed up the process of establishing rules that would protect workers from diacetyl, a chemical in popcorn flavoring that has been found to cause lung problems in workers, reversing a Bush administration action.

The Chamber of Commerce criticized that decision at the time.

But unions and other safety advocates also cheered additional funding included in Obama's budget for OSHA, as well as in the economic stimulus package

A new version of the Protect America Workers Act, an OSHA reform bill introduced in each of the last few Congresses by Democrats, is expected to be introduced in a few weeks, to coincide with the Workers Memorial Day on April 28.