Senate panel looks into OSHA reform

Manufacturers tried this week to build support for a package of workplace-safety reform bills in the Senate, where similar measures died last Congress.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Safety Subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday on possible reforms, including four House bills the business community views as legal reform for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal body that enforces workplace safety rules.
File photo
A Senate subcommittee is considering a package of bills introduced by Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.).


The bills passed the House last Congress, although a few labor-friendly Republicans opposed them. No companion bills were introduced in the Senate. 

Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) reintroduced the measures this year. A vote could come as early as this month, lobbyists said.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has given the Judiciary Committee, which shares jurisdiction with the Education and Workforce Committee over a measure to require OSHA to pay the legal fees incurred by a business that successfully fought a citation, until May 20 to act on that particular bill.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was among a small group of Republicans who joined Democrats in voting against the measure last Congress. A spokesman said he didn’t know whether the committee would mark up the bill by the deadline, or the lawmaker’s position on the new measure.

A bigger obstacle will likely be the Senate. House supporters failed to reach a compromise with Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), now chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who was pushing his own reform effort.

That bill — the so-called Safe Act — sought to provide new services to employers to help them comply with safety rules and specified that inspectors could allow time for employers to correct safety mistakes if they were not willful or repeated before issuing a citation.

The measure also called for additional training and new eligibility standards for safety inspectors. But the measure, introduced in July 2004, was never acted upon.

“They just didn’t have the time to focus on the issue. But that will be different this time around,” said Craig Orfield, a spokesman for the committee.

During his panel’s May 10 hearing, Enzi said he planned to reintroduce the Safe Act this Congress.

“We need a system that encourages employers who work in good faith to protect employees to find out how to achieve safety voluntarily,” Enzi said.

New Safety Subcommittee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) is supported Norwood’s measures as a House member. Several observers said some compromise between the two approaches was likely.

“OSHA reform is long overdue and cooperative compliance is what all of us need to strive for,” Isakson said in a statement to The Hill.

On Tuesday, the subcommittee panel heard from critics and supporters of the House bills.

Jerrold Dodd, the general manager and chief operating officer of Dayton United Metal Spinners, told senators he spent $8,000 in attorney’s fees fighting what he says was an unjust fine an OSHA investigator issued after an accident at a plant. Eventually the $17,000 fine was reduced to $3,500.

Dodd, who testified on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers, which supports the Norwood bills, said his insurance premiums have also increased as a result of OSHA’s action.

The fine was prompted when a punch-press operator lost two fingers in a workplace accident. Dodd said the worker admitted that he didn’t follow company safety rules.

Each of the four House bills is opposed by labor groups, which are a key constituency of Democrats, some of whom would likely have to support any reform measure if it is to pass the Senate.

Lynn Rhinehart, the AFL-CIO associate general counsel, said in written testimony that the House legal-fees measure would “drain resources away from an agency that has perpetually struggled to do its job with the limited resources available to it.”

The Congressional Budget Office has said the measure would cost $44 million over the next five years.

Rhinehart also criticized the three other Norwood bills. One measure that would beef up a review commission would undermine the labor secretary’s ability to interpret and enforce workplace safety rules, Rhinehart said. Another to give employers longer to respond to a citation than the current 15-day deadline under certain circumstances is “inappropriately one-sided” because it doesn’t offer the same leeway to employees.

The fourth bill, which would expand membership of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission from three to five members, unnecessarily strains OSHA’s budget, Rhinehart said.

But Arthur Sapper, an attorney at McDermott, Will & Emery testifying on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, another backer of Norwood’s measures, called the proposed reforms “moderate and limited” and said they give small businesses a “fair chance to plead their case,” according to written testimony.