Vermont Gov. Wants Feds To Take Over State's OSH Program

Anticipating a $30-$40 million budget shortfall, Vermont Gov. James Douglas wants the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to take over much of the enforcement and inspection responsibilities of the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA) in an effort to save the state $450,000.

"There's no funding in the governor's budget for the VOSHA program starting July 1," acknowledged VOSHA Director Robert McLeod, who has headed VOSHA for 21 years. "The governor is proposing to keep two people for public sector enforcement."

Vermont is one of 21 states where the state does public and private sector inspections. Under the governor's budget proposal, the state would turn the enforcement of occupational safety and health regulations and inspection of private sector workplaces over to OSHA, which means any fines that might be collected estimated at as much as $250,000 per year would also go to the federal government. The state would continue to inspect and enforce occupational safety and health regulations at public sector workplaces.

Douglas defended the $450,000 cut to the VOSHA budget, saying, "I'm attempting to balance the state budget under very difficult circumstances. This is a time for difficult choices."

Representatives of Vermont labor groups, who gathered recently as part of the Workers' Caucus, a group of legislators who support workers' issues, are not happy with the proposed budget cut, complaining it will jeopardize worker safety in the state.

"The savings [from turning the program over to the federal government] will be relatively small…for what's at stake: Compromising the safety of over 300,000 Vermont workers," said Ron Pickering, president of the Vermont AFL-CIO.

Michael Bertrand, the new commissioner of the Vermont Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees VOSHA, said the plan was not a compromise on safety, but "an alternative route."

Pickering and others worried that Vermont's occupational safety and health program would suffer in other ways. Currently, because it is a state-plan state, Vermont can enforce workplace regulations that are more stringent than those of the federal government. Plus, the state currently has a local board that handles appeals of fines and negotiates settlements of violations. If the federal government takes over the program, then appeals will be handled by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, which is based in Washington, D.C. and handles hundreds of appeals from around the country.

In addition, some business owners are concerned that federal inspectors might be more harsh and issue higher penalties than state inspectors. Chris Barbieri, president of Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said he has a number of members call who are not in favor of the proposal. "They feel they have a good working relationship with VOSHA," he said. "I guess you can say better the devil you know than the devil you don't."

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