U.S. House Passes OSHA Changes for Employers

May 20, 2004

Employers could get more time to challenge citations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and more companies could recoup lawyers’ fees under a set of House bills that would make employer-friendly changes to the regulatory agency.

Another measure approved by the House this week would increase the board’s power.

But the prospect for passage is slim in the Senate — also controlled by Republicans but by a narrower margin. That chamber does not have similar legislation pending. In fact, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is pushing a bill that would expand OSHA worker protections and increase penalties for violations.

That didn’t stop House Republicans from plowing ahead Tuesday on the four bills they said would enhance OSHA’s oversight of employers and improve the regulatory process.

“Don’t hamstring small businesses’ ability to continue to hire new workers and compete in our economy,” said GOP Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. “That’s why these bills are important.”

Democrats said the legislation was an election-year gift to big business, intended to weaken regulation. They warned that such changes ultimately would hurt workers.

Republicans argued the four bills improve oversight and remove unnecessary red tape for employers.

The legislation “will go a long way towards bringing about the safest workplace possible by replacing the overly complex, arbitrary, and unintentional legal traps in current OSHA law with common sense and cooperation between OSHA and employers to deliver results for workers,” said Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., the bills’ sponsor.

Democrats charged that Republicans are looking out only for their employer campaign contributors.

“You never get any bills from them seeking to protect workers,” Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., said about the Republicans.

The bills:
• H.R. 2728 would allow the OSHA Review Commission, which hears companies’ appeals on violations, to extend a 15-day deadline for employers to respond to citations.

The commission could grant extensions to employers that missed the deadline because of a “mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect.”

• H.R. 2729 would increase the review commission’s membership from three to five members.

• H.R. 2730 would let the review commission’s interpretations of laws and its decisions trump those of the labor secretary and OSHA, a Labor Department agency, when a judge deems the commission’s decisions reasonable.

Opponents said the measure would overturn a 1991 Supreme Court decision that said the labor secretary should be given deference over the review commission.

• H.R. 2731 would require the government to refund lawyers’ fees of small businesses when they prevail in court cases brought by OSHA, even if the labor secretary or the government were “substantially justified” in pursuing the violation. Such costs to OSHA are estimated at $7 million a year.

Currently, small businesses may recover litigation costs only if the government’s position was found unjustifiable by the review commission.

In the latest figures available, worker fatalities fell from 5,915 workers in 2001 to 5,524 workers in 2002 _ an unprecedented 6.6 percent drop.

About 4.7 million workplace injuries and illnesses were reported to OSHA in 2002, or 5.3 cases per 100 workers. Those numbers are not comparable to previous years’ data because the Labor Department changed how it gathers the information.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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