New OSHA Head: Friend or Foe of Lean?


Safety is a key, if often unheralded principle of lean manufacturing. The lean concept of respect for people includes recognition that workers should not be exposed to unsafe working conditions. Many people argue that the tool of 5S really ought to be 6S, with safety the 6th “S.”

So from a lean perspective, it is worth taking a look at President Obama’s choice to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

He is Jordan Barab, who spent the past two years as senior labor policy advisor for health and safety on the House Education and Labor Committee.

By all accounts, Barab is a passionate true believer and crusader for workplace safety. As a union staffer, he directed the safety and health program for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) from 1982 to 1998.

For four years, he wrote a blog about workplace safety called Confined Space. And while he stopped writing the blog two years ago, all of the posts are still online.

I spent some time browsing the blog. On the one hand, Barab seems to understand that safety problems are rarely the result of worker carelessness, but have much more to do with poor processes or working conditions.

However, I don’t know whether he understands that the best road to improvement lies in carefully analyzing the process to understand the best way to improve it. His focus over the years has been on government mandating safety regulations.

(I’m not opposed to government safety regulations. I believe in them. I just like them to make sense for the business as well as the workers.)

One of the few references I found on his blog to lean manufacturing was when he was quoting an article written elsewhere about an incident of workplace violence at a Chrysler plant. The article he quoted suggested that the violence was at least partly the result of systematic harassment of workers by Chrysler over many months, and that “lean production” initiatives had been part of that harassment by attacking the seniority system, pitting workers against each other.

Of course, whatever Chrysler called “lean” clearly wasn’t. I hope this article or anything else he has read doesn’t prejudice Barab against lean principles simply because they were misused or misinterpreted by one employer.

Do you know anything more about Jordan Barab? Please share it in a comment.

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