Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor: 'There's a New Sheriff in Town'

With equal parts Old West bravado and down-to-earth street lingo, the tone of yesterday's 1 p.m. keynote presentation by Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor Jordan Barab was no-nonsense forthrightness. He started his speech by giving thanks to all the safety professionals in the audience, assuring them that they are no longer alone in their fight for worker safety.

"Thank you, great job, and well done," Barab said. "You are not alone. We have your back and your fight is our fight . . . there's a new sheriff in town."

Although OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs will continue to recognize those companies deserving of recognition, Barab promised that the days of signing alliances only to fill quotas is over. As proof, he alluded to the formation of a "SWAT team" of safety inspectors being prepared to disperse across Texas in the following weeks in support of Secretary Hilda Solis' new Texas construction enforcement program.

Also high on OSHA's agenda, Barab said, is taking a closer look at behavior-based incentive programs that punish workers for reporting workplace injuries or encourage a non-reporting workplace culture.

In addition, Barab addressed what he called the 65,000-pound elephant in the room, ergonomics. He assured the audience that OSHA would again pick up this cause but acknowledge the political and legal challenges that lay ahead. "It's a big political football that others don't want on the field," he said, calling upon the participation of safety professionals to educate their congressmen to push the issue forward.

"We're in this fight together," Barab said. "Together we can make the workplace safer for our neighbors, family members, and friends."

In a short Q&A session that followed, Barab was asked when a permanent OSHA head would be named. He said it will take some time get through the political process to confirm a nominee. "I would say it would at least be fall," he said. "I doubt if it will be before September or October."

Regarding penalties, Barab acknowledged that the penalty structure needs to be revised. "We're looking at what we can do under the law to increase those penalties . . . and, where it's appropriate, introduce criminal penalties, as well."

Barab's overall message is that OSHA and its standards process needs to be fixed. To find the solution, he called on all safety professionals to start getting involved in sharing their expertise with the agency. "OSHA's old consensus standards, as far as I'm concerned, are the floor, they're irrelevant," he said. "You all know better than we do how to move on."

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