Lawmakers Debate Changes to OSHA's Enforcement Powers

Democrats and Republicans argued June 17 over rival bills that could transform the way OSHA enforces workplace safety regulations.

Sen. Jon Corzine, D-NJ, held a press conference announcing his introduction of a bill that would increase the maximum penalty from six months in jail to 10 years in prison for willful OSHA violations that lead to employee deaths.

Shortly afterward, Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., held a hearing on his "Occupational Safety and Health Fairness Act" (H.R. 1583), a measure with six provisions intended to help employers who face OSHA enforcement actions. The bill narrows the definition of willful violations, increases the size and authority of the OSHA Review Commission, awards attorney's fees to small employers who beat OSHA in court, and allows employers more power to fight default judgments if they are late in contesting a citation.

"For many employers, especially smaller employers, compliance with OSHA regulations is challenging, even with the help of experts," said Norwood, chair of the Workplace Protections Subcommittee, in his opening statement at the hearing.

Norwood invited four witnesses to testify on H.R. 1583, three representing business interests, and John Molovich, a workplace safety specialist of the United Steelworkers of America.

"H.R. 1583 is a moderate and limited bill. It is narrowly targeted at some of the worst problems with OSHA enforcement," asserted Arthur Sapper, a member of the OSHA Practice Group of McDermott, Will & Emery. Sapper spoke on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Molovich opposed all the provisions of Norwood's bill. "This is a shameful attack on working people throughout America," he declared, and spoke out in favor of Corzine's proposal, arguing OSHA should be strengthened, not weakened.

Norwood's and Corzine's bills both face an uncertain future.

"I will do everything I can to stop this [H.R. 1583]," Corzine declared at the press conference that preceded the hearing. "The denuding of what 'willful' is really will take away the heart and soul of what OSHA workplace safety is all about." He predicted 'enormous pushback' from a broad cross-section of senators.

There is no Senate companion legislation to H.R. 1583; Corzine said there would soon be a House version of his proposal.

Corzine conceded the current Congress makes it difficult for him to succeed with his own legislation, but indicated he was taking a long-term view of the matter, and intended to use the bill as a way to identify candidates who favor workers. "This is one of those things that's worth fighting for," he said.

OSHA appears to be on the sidelines of the congressional debate. The agency has taken no position on either piece of legislation. Although the hearing was devoted to OSHA's enforcement practices, the agency was not invited to testify.

"The hearing was focused on how the bill would help small business owners, so that is why the witnesses were focused on that point," explained a subcommittee staff member.

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