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House Takes Second Crack at OSHA Reform

July 27, 2005
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For the second year in a row, the House of Representatives last month approved a package of bills designed to make it easier to appeal citations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Although the measures mostly benefit small employers, proponents say that the assault on bureaucracy is good for all business.

“We’ve overcome the mind-set that you can’t touch OSHA,” says John Stone, communications director for Georgia Republican Rep. Charles Norwood, chairman of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

The four bills target OSHA enforcement and appeals processes rather than workplace safety rules. One would allow exceptions to the 15-day deadline for employers to respond to citations. Another would expand the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission from three members to five, ostensibly making it easier for the body to achieve a quorum and adjudicate disputes. A third would allow businesses with less than $7 million in assets and 100 or fewer employees to recover attorneys’ fees if they successfully contest a citation. The fourth bill would give the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission authority to interpret the law and independently review citations.

Detractors say that the legislation establishing OSHA in 1970 remains virtually intact, hampering the agency’s effectiveness.

“For the most part, it has been untouched,” says Marc Freedman, director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Workplaces have changed dramatically over those years. There’s lots of room for further reform. These bills are a modest first step.”

The measures passed mostly with Republican backing, but the fact that some Democrats were on board for each one was hailed as a victory by OSHA reformers. Extending the appeals deadline and allowing recovery of attorneys’ fees received the most Democratic votes, 31 and 17, respectively. The outcome signaled a breakthrough on a typically contentious issue that polarizes labor and business interests.

But Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, ranking member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, decried what he called a Republican attack on OSHA. He cited a March explosion at a BP Amoco refinery in Texas that killed 15 workers as an example of the need for strong safety regulation.

“Rather than taking decisive action on behalf of hardworking employees--like increasing the minimum wage, stopping runaway pension terminations, or expanding access to health care--these bills do nothing more than jeopardize health and safety of employees on the job,” he said in a statement.

In 2004, the package died in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. This time it might get a boost from Sen. Johnny Isakson, a freshman Georgia Republican who worked with Norwood on the issue while he was in the House. Isakson chairs the Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee of the Senate labor committee. Panel Republicans hope to introduce OSHA reform legislation in July that likely will include the Norwood proposals.

If the bills make it through the Senate, it will be a triumph for Norwood, a dentist who made OSHA reform part of his inaugural campaign in 1994 because he was irritated by workplace safety rules that affected his practice.

Although the Bush administration has attempted to foster more cooperation between OSHA and industry, the agency’s inspections still have teeth. “I would not say that the agency has rolled over and agreed to everything business … wanted,” Freedman says. “The employer community still thinks about OSHA as much as they ever did.”

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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