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High hopes for next OSHA chief

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Employers hope that new leadership at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration will spur a more collaborative approach to regulation and enforcement.

Those who know President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the agency say he is unlikely to try to prevent OSHA from fulfilling its workplace safety responsibilities, but would bring a new perspective to the agency.

In November, the president nominated Scott Mugno as assistant secretary of OSHA. Mr. Mugno is currently the vice president for safety, sustainability and vehicle maintenance at FedEx Ground, a unit of FedEx Corp., and previously was managing director for corporate safety, health and fire protection at FedEx Express in Memphis, Tennessee, according to a White House statement.

Those who know or have worked with Mr. Mugno sing his praises.

Jim Smith, Boca Raton, Florida-based director of risk control services for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. and president of the American Society of Safety Engineers, said Mr. Mugno – an ASSE member since 2004 – was “instrumental” in putting together the organization’s first transportation symposium in 2007.

“I think he’s a good selection,” Mr. Smith said. “I’m sure he has some ideas to make (OSHA) more functional. We’ve talked to OSHA a lot about a risk-based approach, like the U.K. has. The problem is that doesn’t fit into the regulatory enforcement box. But there’s no question we have to have a different approach, because if you look at the history of on-the-job fatalities, it’s flatlined.” 

A FedEx spokeswoman said all inquiries must be directed to the U.S. Department of Labor, which did not respond to a request for a comment or interview with Mr. Mugno.

“Scott, much more so than any previous assistant secretary, really is going to have a sense of running a business unit,” said Howard Mavity, an Atlanta-based partner at Fisher Phillips L.L.P. “We’ve not had someone with that background, and I think where it’s going to manifest itself is that it’s pretty common knowledge that Scott has focused a lot on the concept of safety 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s one of these folks that is a big believer in that safety doesn’t end once you leave the workplace.”

“I don’t see him trying to gut things,” he continued. “He is not a proponent of hyper-aggressive regulation, but he’s also not one of these guys who just wants to gut government agencies. There are those out there who just don’t have respect for the mission of some of the agencies. Scott is not one of those people.” 

Under new leadership, OSHA should “promote the fact that they are a resource” and are looking to partner with rather than punish employers, said Robert Cartwright Jr., Exton, Pennsylvania-based division manager of environmental health, safety and sustainability at Bridgestone Retail Operations L.L.C. and incoming 2018 president of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.

“I think there’s still some perception out there that OSHA is punitive,” he said. “They are only punitive when they don’t have a response by employers.” 

Mr. Cartwright said he sees “a much more collaborative spirit with the OSHA inspectors. They’re much more helpful and much more willing to say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re looking at, and we have different programs in place that can help you.’” 

But any effort by Mr. Mugno to implement a more collaborative approach will be hampered by the agency’s lack of resources, Mr. Mavity said.

“There’s been a lot of lip service paid, but no president since the agency was created has ever adequately funded it,” he said.

The nomination of a new assistant secretary is critical, not just for employers regulated by OSHA, but also for staffers looking for direction, experts say.

“We haven’t had an assistant secretary for the last 10 months,” Ann Rosenthal, associate solicitor for the division of occupational safety and health with the Labor Department’s Office of the Solicitor in Washington, told attendees of the American Bar Association’s annual Labor and Employment Law Conference in Washington last month. “One has been nominated. Someday he will, I hope, appear because it would really be nice to have a client as opposed to the acting client who has been wonderful, but doesn’t want to rock the boat at all.”

A Senate confirmation hearing had not been scheduled as of late last month, but experts generally do not expect any major obstacles, as Mr. Mugno is not seen as an ideological nominee.

“I don’t think this is going to be as politicized a choice as some of the others,” said Taylor White, a Dallas-based associate in the labor and employment practice of Gardere Wynne Sewell L.L.P. “Certainly, people are going to have questions about his dedication to the balance between employee safety versus the practicality of implementing a safety policy for employers. A big portion of the base ... for the president is blue-collar workers who benefit directly theoretically from worker safety rules, so certainly I’m eager to see what kind of balance, once confirmed, he strikes.”