The new OSHA front office is quickly taking shape. Top tier appointments are being made by President Biden’s Labor Department transition team, with input from Labor Secretary nominee Marty Walsh, mayor of Boston, and Deputy Labor Secretary nominee Julie Su, secretary of the California Workforce Development Agency and nationally recognized expert on worker rights and civil rights.
President Biden, who kicked off his campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh, PA, has vowed to be “the most pro-union president.” “I’m a union guy,” he said at a post-election labor-management meeting. The Labor Department transition team has more than two dozen union officials and labor activists, including AFL-CIO former general counsel Lynn Rhinehart and Cal/OSHA director Doug Parker, previously director of Worksafe, a California-based nonprofit dedicated to safety, health and justice for workers. Labor Secretary nominee Walsh joined the Laborers’ International Union at age 21 and was head of the Boston Building Trades before becoming mayor of Boston.
Jim Frederick, recently retired after 24 years in the United Steel Workers safety and health department, is running OSHA as principal deputy until a permanent assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety health is nominated and confirmed later this year.
Leah Ford, OSHA chief of staff and an attorney, spent 18 years with the Teamsters.
Amanda Edens, the agency’s second deputy, joined OSHA in 1985 as an industrial hygienist.
Joseph “Chip” Hughes, deputy for pandemic and emergency response, directed the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Worker Training Program for 30 years.
Ann Rosenthal, senior advisor serving a 100-day transition term, retired from the Labor Department in 2018 after 40 years handling OSHA and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) litigation.
The pro-worker profile of Labor Department and OSHA decision-makers should prompt employers to “get ready forto more enforcement actions” by the agency, wrote Edwin Foulke, a former OSHA chief in the George W. Bush administration, in a blog for his law firm.
A former high-ranking agency deputy summed up his prediction for the coming years: “Cite, cite, cite. “It’s going to be business as usual.”
Within one week in February, OSHA made national headlines fining a manufacturer $264,000 following a finger amputation; a contractor $299,590 for alleged trenching violations; and a maintenance service company $419,347 following a confined space fatality. All cases were posted on OSHA’s website. The Trump administration had stopped posting enforcement news, the so-called “blaming and shaming” tactic.
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COVID-19 has made it anything but business as usual for OSHA and will for the near-term. In January, President Biden issued an executive order giving OSHA two weeks to publish revised guidance on workplace safety during the pandemic. OSHA met that deadline in eight days; you can review “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace” at https://www.osha.gov/coronavirus/safework.
The executive order calls for an emergency temporary standard (ETS) on COVID-19 protections to be issued by March 15 – if warranted. A COVID-19 ETS will be issued; this is one standard deadline that won’t be missed, according to interviews for this article with sources well-informed on OSHA issues. There is simply too much pressure for a swift and forceful response.
In a February 1 letter, the Congressional Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis “strongly encouraged” acting OSHA head Frederick to “enact an emergency temporary standard and enhance enforcement efforts.”
The COVID-19 ETS is expected to draw on OSHA’s detailed guidance issued in late January (https://www.osha.gov/coronavirus/safework), guidance documents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/guidance-list.html?Sort=Date%3A%3Adesc, and perhaps parts of state workplace COVID-19 standards, particularly Virginia’s, which has become a permanent standard https://www.doli.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Final-Standard-for-Infectious-Disease-Prevention-of-the-Virus-That-Causes-COVID-19-16-VAC25-220-1.27.2021.pdf.
“Once Covid-19 vaccinations are available to all OSHA inspectors, employers can anticipate a significant increase in the number of on-site inspections,” writes Foulke.
But many EHS professionals believe the new leadership should focus on modernizing the agency. They contend OSHA still follows the enforcement-based model developed in the early 1970s; one that is stagnant due to the increasingly contentious political environment. Reformers want a collaborative tone instead of an adversarial one, and enforcement reserved for egregious violators.
“Now is the time to launch an initiative to reimagine OSHA… the weaknesses now facing OSHA are significant,” wrote former OSHA head Dr. David Michaels and his chief deputy, Jordan Barab, in the April, 2020 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
“If OSHA takes the lead and starts driving organizations to reduce serious injuries and fatalities, implement safety and health management systems, focus on human and organizational performance (HOP), OSHA could recapture the role as a leader in safety and health,” says a former OSHA national deputy.
In an exclusive interview before being appointed acting OSHA chief, Jim Frederick supported these progressive action items:
- Focus on reducing fatalities outside the regulatory process;
- Promote management standards such as ANSI/ASSP Z10 and ISO 45001 as “really good roadmaps” to excellence;
- Put less emphasis on lagging indicators such as recordable incidents and more focus on risks, not hazards; focus on severity and probability;
- Bring inside the OSHA tent stakeholders from labor, and go beyond labor to include small, medium and large corporations and health and safety associations and their members.
At the United Steel Workers, Frederick had the reputation as “a steady guy” and “a thoughtful consensus-builder,” according to interviewed sources who know him. “More Biden than Bernie (Saunders),” as one person who knows Frederick says.
Morale at OSHA is in deep trough after going four years without a permanent, Senate-confirmed chief and a wave of retirements that has left many holes in the top leadership ranks. “Bringing the agency back to life is going to be a real challenge,” says one OSHA-watcher.
The White House and the Labor Department will decide who is up for that challenge when a permanent head of OSHA is nominated. A similar situation exists at the EPA, where a recent New York Times article was headlined: “A Consensus Builder for E.P.A., When Some Want a Fighter.”
Frederick, who might be nominated for the top job on a permanent basis, is the moderate consensus-builder ready to modernize the agency. If a “fighter” is sought to make up for what union and labor activists see as four lost years at OSHA, look for the 50-year-old enforcement model that former OSHA chief Michaels and others believe must be reinvented to continue. To modernize, to enforce, or try to do both is the push-pull narrative to follow for the next four years.