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Unions Float Two Picks to Be Workplace Safety Chief Under Biden

Nov. 19, 2020, 1:00 PM

Organized labor is touting two veterans from within its ranks as potential Biden administration picks to lead the federal government’s workplace safety agency through the pandemic-induced crisis.

Jim Frederick, who retired last year after 24 years as the United Steelworkers’ assistant health and safety director, and Chris Cain, safety and health director at North America’s Building Trades Unions, both got support to lead the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration during a Tuesday meeting of AFL-CIO affiliate unions, two sources familiar with the discussions said.

President-elect Joe Biden‘s choice for labor secretary will take first priority, but his selection for OSHA assistant secretary will have outsized influence next year in overseeing an agency that’s under heightened national scrutiny over its responsibility to protect workers from contracting Covid-19 on-the-job. The Trump administration has faced widespread criticism from unions and other worker advocates that OSHA’s response hasn’t been aggressive enough to meet the occupational safety challenges created by the pandemic.

The AFL-CIO union federation convened the virtual meeting to go over its affiliates’ choices for a larger list of recommendations that will be sent to the Biden transition team, four sources said. The labor movement, which has slammed the Trump administration for not issuing an enforceable occupational-safety regulation to address Covid-19, is expected to have influence over the incoming administration’s picks to serve in leadership roles at the Labor Department.

Another union official, who didn’t take part in the AFL-CIO meeting, told Bloomberg Law that at least some unions will be recommending Frederick to Biden’s team independently of the AFL-CIO. The union federation’s list of recommendations remains in flux, three sources said.

“We are working with the Biden-Harris team to assemble the most pro-worker administration in our nation’s history,” AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel said in a statement. “We continue to solicit input from affiliate unions on key posts and will share those recommendations with the transition on a rolling basis.”

The Biden transition team didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment about whether it would consider Frederick or Cain for an OSHA post.

Emergency Standard

Biden’s pledges to increase the urgency of the federal government’s pandemic response and to quickly issue an emergency temporary standard to address airborne transmission of the virus in the workplace suggest the transition team could name someone for OSHA’s Senate-confirmed leadership job more promptly than in past presidential transitions.

In fact, some former Labor Department officials have said that the urgency to issue a temporary standard to protect workers from Covid-19 may demand that Biden be ready on Inauguration Day to install a politically appointed acting head for OSHA, to circumvent the inevitable delays in the Senate confirmation process.

Frederick has continued to work as a consultant since retiring from his role at United Steelworkers in 2019.

“I would be honored to serve in the administration to advance worker safety and health,” Frederick said in an interview Wednesday. He added that Biden’s team hasn’t approached him about the OSHA position.

During his time at United Steelworkers Frederick was involved in occupational safety issues affecting numerous industries, such as mining, manufacturing, and oil and gas refining.

He also was involved in development of voluntary industry consensus standards for establishing safety and health compliance programs for all types of employers, and served on advisory panels for OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Frederick holds a bachelor of science degree in environmental health from Purdue University and a master’s in environmental health and safety management from Rochester Institute of Technology.

Cain, in addition to her role at NABTU, is executive director of the union-affiliated CPWR: The Center for Construction Research and Training, located in Silver Spring, Md. She also is a member of OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health.

“I haven’t been contacted in any official manner,” Cain told Bloomberg Law on Wednesday. “It would be an honor to work there.”

Before joining CPWR in 1998, Cain worked as a certified industrial hygienist. She began her career at New York State’s Division of Safety and Health. Cain has a bachelor of science degree in industrial hygiene from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.

—With assistance from Fatima Hussein and Ian Kullgren.

To contact the reporters on this story: Josh Eidelson in Palo Alto, California at jeidelson@bloomberg.net; Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com; Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com;

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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