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With lofty intent, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970. Its stated goal was "to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources." Yet the legislative vision that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), saved numerous Americans' lives, and cut the number of U.S. workplace fatalities by half every year has not immunized OSHA from the familiar bureaucratic virus that causes feverish paperwork and painful government rules.
Even its home within the Department of Labor has offered no protection from critics distressed at how far an infected OSHA has mutated from its original mandate to protect workers. Irritated business owners vehemently protest the inordinate burden of more than 4,000 abstruse and often contradictory regulations OSHA imposes, not to mention the several hundred billion dollars they have directed toward compliance with OSHA's rules.
On-the-job deaths have declined; supporters offer an impressive and declining workplace fatality rate since OSHA began (from 17 to 8 deaths per 100,000 workers). But workplace injuries have increased, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics pointing to a 15 percent increase in workplace injuries since 1972. Inside OSHA itself, inspectors have not found a cure for the sheer volume of paperwork their written violations generate. Incredibly, 50 percent of the time those violations cite companies for incorrectly written forms! Nor have inspectors developed an antibody to reduce the inordinate time they spend measuring the heights of railings.
Several members of Congress are seeking to recapture the original focus of OSHA and have proposed legislation to reconstitute it. As we explore the prescriptions contained in House and Senate initiatives, we present a range of reactions and conclude with a brief personal commentary on whether these legislative efforts can restore the health of OSHA and continue to sustain workplace safety.
THE BILLS BEFORE CONGRESS
Introduced to the House of Representatives in the summer of 1995, the Safety and Health Improvement and Regulatory Reform Act (H.R. 1834) preceded the Senate's version of the Occupational Safety and Health Reform and Reinvention Act (S. 1423) by five months. Numerous features reveal a concordance between the Senate version, authored by Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kansas), and the House version, put forth by Cass Ballenger (R-North Carolina).
The conspicuous inclusion of the word "reform" in both titles leaves no doubt as to their similar emphasis:
* the formation of labor-management committees to discuss safety issues in the workplace through an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA);
* the protection of small farms and businesses from random OSHA safety inspections when their lost workday rate exceeds their industry average (H.R. 1834 limits a "small" business to fewer than 50 employees, S. 1423 to fewer than 10);
* the support of voluntary compliance through third-party certification and the exemption of companies from subsequent inspection;
* the granting of legal privilege to a company seeking to avoid self-disclosure of its safety and health audits;
* the permission to provide alternative methods of worker protection equivalent to those required by OSHA regulations;
* the reduction in status of a violation to a lower warning level, when no serious injury or death occurs (before issuing a citation, H.R. 1834 would issue a warning and allow time for abatement);
* the limitation of fines to serious violations (H.R. 1834's penalties for posting and paperwork violations would require demonstrating fraudulent intent; S. 1423 decreases those same penalties to $100);
* the codification of OSHA's consultation program that funds state compliance programs assisting small businesses, as well as the codification of the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) that acknowledges workplaces committed to safety and health with exemptions from routine OSHA inspections;
* the extension of OSHA coverage to federal government workers.
Special Provisions Of S. 1423
The Senate version specifies three noteworthy inclusions not found in H.R. 1834. The first provision removes quotas from OSHA inspectors' duties. The second allows a telephone or facsimile consultation to substitute for an on-site inspection arising from a health or safety violation reported by an employee. The third lowers the cost of a penalty resulting from a violation if a certified third-party safety and health consultant performs the inspection, or if the company furnishes employees with an effective health and safety program.
Special Provisions Of H.R. 1834
The House version adds a longer list of provisions:
* the requirement for employees to file health or safety complaints with their employer first, and the permission and opportunity for that employer to rectify the violation identified -- before the company has to involve OSHA;
* the elimination of NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), which performs research into workplace hazards …