Former Labor Department Lawyer Named Acting OSHA Chief

In choosing Jonathan Snare to be acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao appears to have settled upon a relatively known and reliable political appointee to lead the agency until there is a permanent replacement for former OSHA head John Henshaw, who resigned as of Dec. 31.

Snare, who reportedly had worked closely with OSHA in his previous position as the senior advisor to the Department of Labor's solicitor of labor, has also been appointed deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.

Prior to joining the solicitor's office at the Department of Labor in June 2003, Snare had a private law practice in Texas that concentrated in commercial litigation, including labor and employment, government affairs, administrative law and election law. He also was active in the Texas Republican Party and participated in some of the controversial redistricting cases involving congressional districts.

'Business as usual' for ASSE

The choice of a political appointee with little background in safety and health to run OSHA was accepted by industry, but it appeared to upset some labor stakeholders.

"It's business as usual and the lines of communication remain very open," commented Diane Hurns, a spokesperson for the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO's safety and health department, said the choice of Snare represented a double departure from past practice: Previous acting OSHA administrators have been career OSHA officials rather than political appointees; and past political appointees to the deputy assistant position, such as Gary Visscher, have had safety and health experience.

"The agency should be headed by individuals who have a background and involvement in safety and health issues," Seminario said. "What this tells us is this administration is first and foremost concerned about total political control of their programs."

Administration looking for 'political continuity'

Like many stakeholders, Frank White, vice president of ORC Worldwide, said the Snare appointment appeared to "come out of nowhere," and he agreed the move signaled that the administration wants political continuity. But unlike Seminario, he didn't think this was a bad idea.

"It doesn't seem strange to me they'd want someone in there with a pipeline to the political hierarchy," White commented. "Obviously Mr. Snare will have to rely on career people heavily for content and substance to make political judgments."

One of the principal career people upon whom Snare will rely is Steve Witt, the director of OSHA's directorate of standards and guidance. Witt was named acting deputy assistant secretary for OSHA to replace Davis Layne, who retired from OSHA in December.

While Witt has many years of OSHA experience, the choice disturbed some observers, who pointed out the move draws attention to the most controversial part of OSHA's record over the past four years: the agency's failure to issue a single major safety and health standard.

"This promotion, even if it turns out to be temporary, appears to reward the part of OSHA's triple responsibility (standard-setting, enforcement and partnerships) with the weakest performance during the past four years," said Adam Finkel, a former regional administrator and director of OSHA's health standards who is now teaching at Princeton University under a settlement agreement with the agency. Finkel said his comments expressed his own view, not that of the agency.

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