Business again pushes for OSHA 'legal reform'

Business groups are pressing for what they call “legal reform for OSHA” — setting up another battle with labor groups, and difficult votes for labor-friendly Republicans, on the federal agency that sets workplace safety and health standards.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the National Federation of Independent Business and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are among the groups lobbying Congress for the changes, which collectively increase the powers of an independent panel empowered to review citations against businesses imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Labor and consumer groups are challenging the industry push, saying the bills — in particular one that requires OSHA to pay attorney fees if they lose certain reviews — could discourage federal regulators from citing businesses for safety and health hazards.

Many Republican members of the class of 1994, which shifted control of Congress to the GOP, have been trying for over a decade to revamp OSHA significantly. But organized labor has consistently warded off reform legislation.

However, industry groups scored a major legislative triumph in 2001 when they convinced the Congress to overturn the Clinton administration’s ergonomics regulation.
This month, the House Education and the Workforce Committee passed four measures introduced by Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), the chairman of the Education and Workforce Workforce Protections Subcommittee.

Collectively, the measures amount to “legal reform for OSHA,” said Chris Tampio, a spokesman for NAM.

There are no similar Senate measures yet introduced, although business lobbyists are hopeful that new Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) will support their effort, which former subcommittee Chairman Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) did not.

For years, business leaders have complained that OSHA is overzealous in its enforcement. The latest measures are less severe than other changes businesses have pushed, unsuccessfully, on Capitol Hill.

But workplace safety bills are still tough votes for some members. Northeastern Republicans last year privately balked in meetings with their more conservative House caucus leaders over having to challenge labor directly as an election approached.

Bill Samuel, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, said members asked his group which of the four were the least objectionable in hopes of finding some political middle ground.   

“Attacking OSHA is in some districts a risky proposition,” Samuel said. The measures passed, however, mostly along party lines.

Some Republicans who voted against at least one of the four OSHA bills that hit the floor last year included Reps. Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Chris Smith (N.J.), Christopher Shays (Conn.), Steve LaTourette (Ohio), Steve King (N.Y.), James Sensenbrenner (Wis.), John Sweeney (N.Y.) and Jim Saxton (N.J.).

In addition to allowing small employers to recover attorney fees, the measures would ease a requirement that businesses must challenge a citation within 15 days or be automatically guilty of the charge, increase the size of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission from three to five members and state that the commission, and not the labor secretary, will interpret OSHA standards.

In a letter to House members, NAM called the measures “commonsense fixes” to OSHA’s “slanted ‘due process’ system.”

“These bills will alleviate some of the regulatory burdens facing small businesses without sacrificing any safety and health protections,” the letter states.

In an April 12 letter, Samuel expressed the AFL-CIO’s “strong opposition” to the four bills.

“OSHA already has among the weakest enforcement capabilities of any government agency,” Samuel wrote. The measure that would require OSHA pay attorney fees would “drain resources away from an agency that has perpetually struggled to do its job with limited resources.”

But Tampio, of NAM, said the bills create a “balanced process for fighting an OSHA citation.”