Acting OSHA Head’s Retirement Raises Concern Over Agency Direction

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By Stephen Lee

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration remains headless five months into the Trump presidency and will face a changing of hands again in coming weeks when the acting assistant secretary retires.

The White House has yet to nominate someone to replace Dorothy Dougherty, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s current acting head who confirmed to Bloomberg BNA she is retiring June 30. Tom Galassi, who heads the agency’s enforcement directorate, is considered the likeliest candidate to replace her as acting OSHA chief.

Even without a politically-appointed head, OSHA has made a bid to limit the effect of its rule governing worker exposure to beryllium, delayed the onset of a rule requiring employers to electronically submit injury and illness data to OSHA, and signed off on a Congressional vote to scrub the Volks rule, which would have extended the statute of limitations for recordkeeping violations.

But, according to Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Trump administration did not take those actions entirely on its own initiative. Rather, he told Bloomberg BNA, the beryllium action came in response to ongoing litigation, and Congress voted to nix the Volks rule through the Congressional Review Act.

“A lot of press has focused on the idea that federal agencies will be directionless without heads, and that’s true in the most general sense,” Mark Konkel, an attorney with Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, told Bloomberg BNA. “But day to day, a giant administrative bureaucracy with thousands of employees is running—meaning that policy momentum will guide what they do in the absence of new top-down direction under the Trump administration.”

“This may have the effect of extending Obama-era policy direction, because there’s nothing new to interrupt the old direction,” he added.

Symptom of Broader Issues

Compared to other presidencies, the Trump team isn’t behind schedule in naming an OSHA chief. President Barack Obama didn’t name his pick, David Michaels, until late July in his first term, and President George W. Bush waited until mid-September in his first term to nominate Ed Foulke.

Scott Mugno, vice president of safety, sustainability and vehicle maintenance at FedEx Ground, remains the most talked-about candidate to take over the agency. But to Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO, the Trump administration lacking an OSHA head is a small symptom of a much broader White House issue.

“By the time David Michaels was nominated, you had people that were nominated and confirmed for many other positions,” Seminario told Bloomberg BNA. “You look across the government now and the situation is the same everywhere. It’s reflective of a bigger problem of the Trump administration being slow to appoint people to positions across the government.”

The White House didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA questions about OSHA’s political leadership. An OSHA spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA they did not have any information on the agency’s next leader.

Dave Heidorn, director of public affairs and communications at the American Society of Safety Engineers, added that he didn’t see a significant effect from the lack of a permanent political head.

“Dorothy Dougherty is perfectly capable of helming the ongoing work of OSHA,” Heidorn told Bloomberg BNA. “And if they aren’t going to appoint someone who isn’t an experienced OSH professional, better it remains open.”

However, Barbara Rahke, director of the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, confirmed to Bloomberg BNA that enforcement on the ground has remained essentially unchanged so far.

In early April, Mugno told Bloomberg BNA that it was “flattering to be mentioned” for the OSHA leadership job. James Thornton, safety director at shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries in Norfolk, Va., is also reportedly in the running.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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