I don’t do much political commentary. There’s plenty of that to go around, and plenty of other people more in the know on such things. But I don’t see anyone representing my views on this topic – so here goes.
Jordan Barab has been named as Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. (That means he’ll be the head of OSHA, and theoretically responsible for the safety and health of a large part of America’s workforce). On Jordan’s Confined Space blog, he noted in his farewell post that
“[There] are more fish and wildlife inspectors than OSHA inspectors, [and] the penalties from a chemical release that kills fish is higher than a chemical release that kills a worker.”
(I have another post rant in mind about the inequities between worker and environmental protection; we’ll address that another day.)
OSHA has plenty of problems to address, and Jordan has been a vocal critic of OSHA for a long time. Now he can put his money (political capital) where his mouth is. Can he make the change he has called for? Okay – so he’s only the Acting Asst Sec’y for now, but when an permanent Asst Sec’y is named, he’ll still be a big dog at OSHA (Deputy Asst Sec’y).
We don’t need OSHA reform – we need government reform in general. But OSHA certainly needs an overhaul (so does the rest of the government). It takes forever to enact a new health and safety rule. The 2006 hexavalent chromium standard took over 15 years to complete, according to the regulatory history published in the Federal Register. We are still regulated by Permissible Exposure Limits established with the passage of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970. (OSHA tried to update these in 1988, but got beat up in the courts – by the labor groups they were trying to protect). OSHA has been trying to implement an ergonomics standard since 1991 – and we still don’t have one.
There is no shortage of people beating up OSHA and blaming it all on the most recent Bush administration. Can the democrats really do any better? Did W. really create this problem? Did he dismantle the Agency, and disrespect workers anymore than any other previous administration? Apparently not. The Clinton administration didn’t do much to help out here either. That 15 years to get the HexChrome rule in place got started during the Clinton years.
Actually, I don’t believe W., or Billy, or Barack, or any other president can fix this. I don’t think this is necessarily an indication of poor management of an agency. So why is OSHA so inefficient? Because everyone else has their finger in the pie – Congress, Labor, and Industry all have their finger on the kill switch every time OSHA makes a move. The Congressional Review Act hamstrings OSHA from doing anything without congress’ approval (OSHA’s ergonomics rule was pummeled by congress). Every time OSHA issues a new standard, labor groups take them to court and have the standard thrown out for being too lenient (which then takes us backward to a more lenient standard??). Industry and manufacturing groups take OSHA to court over every new standard because they are too strict and will put everyone out of business. (You can read more about the Congressional Review Act here, along with my comment that really got me started on this rant in the first place.)
So, can Jordan Barab fix OSHA? I think he has the knowledge and skills to make the necessary change, but the government is such a huge, out-of-control bureaucracy that no one can make that change – there’s too much influence from too many other interested parties. If he could run OSHA like a science-based business, instead of a politically driven government agency, then he might have a chance. I doubt it. I hope I’m wrong.