Minnesota Governor Spares State OSHA

In a surprise announcement, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty reversed course yesterday (March 6) and agreed to maintain his state's control of workplace health and safety.

Last month, Pawlenty proposed to save $1.2 million over the next year by terminating Minnesota OSHA's monitoring of private employers, laying off 69 state plan officials, and handing over the program to federal OSHA. Like many states, Minnesota is confronting a projected $4.2 billion deficit, but the proposal provoked strong opposition from organized labor and professional groups, who argued that Minnesota OSHA has tougher standards and more inspectors than federal OSHA.

Pawlenty apparently did not realize when he made the proposal that it would not save Minnesota taxpayers any money, because the state plan is financed not from general revenues, but from workers' compensation insurance premiums that are paid by employers.

"There weren't the benefits there that he had hoped," said Pawlenty spokesperson Leslie Kupchella, according to a report in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He's open to new ideas."

Uncertainties about the level of funding the federal government would provide were an additional reason for withdrawing the proposal, according to James Honerman, a spokesman for Minnesota's Dept. of Labor and Industry (DLI).

The governor is proposing that DLI convene a task force this summer to study state and federal OSHA plans, their funding sources, and workplace fatality and injury data.

In a Feb. 25 letter to Pawlenty, Gayla McCluskey, the president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), spelled out why her organization opposed the move. She noted, among other things, that Minnesotans work in a safer environment because the state has adopted updated permissible exposure limits (PELs) for toxic substances.

Federal OSHA failed in its effort to adopt the limits because of an unfavorable court decision in 1992. As a result, federal OSHA is still using PELs that in many cases are more than three decades old.

"Even though I'm sure our efforts did not single-handedly stop the proposal, I am sure we had an impact," commented Aaron Trippler, AIHA director of governmental affairs. "Everybody thinks this is an easy way to save dollars we hope other states will think twice before doing this kind of thing."

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