Safety 2009: Barab Urges Safety and Health Professionals to Speak Up, Get Involved

At ASSE Safety 2009, Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Jordan Barab outlined some of the key challenges facing OSHA and prompted occupational safety and health professionals to take a more aggressive role and let their voices be heard in safety and health issues.

Barab told the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Safety 2009 attendees in San Antonio that he understands that they make safety a reality in workplaces on a day-to-day basis.

“I know what you do, and the Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis knows what you do,” Barab said. “We also came to the ASSE Safety 2009 conference to tell you that you’re not alone. We have your back, and your fight is our fight.”

Barab stressed repeatedly throughout his presentation that safety and health professionals should become more involved in the process.

Get Active

“First and foremost, we need strong standards to protect workers, but we also need standards that make sense in the workplace,” Barab said. “That’s where you come in. When we’re missing the mark, we want you to tell us that as well. We’re in this fight together, and together we can make workplaces safer.”

Barab encouraged safety professionals to be more active in a few ways: by speaking to their managers and CEOs to stress the importance of safety; weighing in with their experience and authority when bills are introduced in Congress; and being active as OSHA moves forward in proposed rulemaking by submitting comments and sharing their experience.

“We need to hear your voices – on either side – about what goes on in your workplace,” he said. “We are committed to being very open, and listening to everyone on this. Undoubtedly, we will make some decisions you aren’t happy with, but such is life.”

Full Speed Ahead

Barab stressed that he and Solis both believe in vigorous enforcement of laws and are committed to taking a strong federal role. To underscore that point, he said, OSHA:

  • Is developing the Severe Violators Program to conduct extensive examinations;
  • Will address critical problems with construction fatalities and injuries;
  • Will send a team of compliance officers across the state of Texas and go to worksite that need immediate attention as part of the new Texas construction safety initiative;
  • Will announce new details on a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for the chemical industry; and
  • Work on an NEP to confront recordkeeping problems and underreporting problems.

“Getting the OSHA regulatory process moving after 8 years also is not going to be easy,” he said, likening it to putting wheels on a car that’s been on blocks for 8 years and expecting to go tooling down the freeway. “The good news is that we’re moving forward.”

In the past few months, he added, OSHA has announced rulemaking on combustible dust, introduced training grants and made some progress on diacetyl, the globally harmonized system and the cranes and derricks rule. In addition, OSHA has issued several new fact sheets and informational documents in recent weeks to help prepare every workplace for a pandemic flu epidemic.

VPP, Ergonomics

Barab touched on the recent GAO report that found oversight of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) is lacking, saying that OSHA will conduct a thorough review of VPP.

“We’re not limited to the VPP, nor are we saying the companies truly excel do not deserve recognition – they do,” Barab said. But the days of awarding companies VPP status to fill goals or create alliance as a replacement for enforcement are over, he said.

Barab also addressed what he called the 60,000-pound elephant in the room – ergonomics. He described ergonomics injuries as a huge safety and health problem recognized by strong science, but also one that stirs political debate. “We’re looking for a team that wants to move beyond destructive politics,” Barab said. “People are getting hurt by repetitive motion injuries … We can fix this, and we’d like you all to join us.”

Another major challenge, he said, is hiring more OSHA staff in a timely fashion. Solis’s budget, which represents a 10 percent increase for OSHA, will help bring 200 new OSHA employees on board. In addition to hiring these new workers, the agency still awaits a permanent administrator, which Barab predicts may not happen until the fall.

The New OSHA

During his presentation, Barab used the term “the new OSHA” and said Solis has asked him to go “full speed ahead” with her agenda at the Department of Labor.

“On this day, OSHA will have a voice, workers will have a voice,” he said. “Unions and safety professionals like you will have a seat at the table, because this administration understands you have a place.”

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