House Hearing Explores Paying Companies When They Beat OSHA in Court

The House Workforce Protections Subcommittee heard an assortment of OSHA enforcement horror stories as it considered legislation introduced by its chairman, Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., which would award attorney's fees to small employers who prevail in "any adversary adjudication" arising from the OSH Act.

Witnesses at the Sept. 17 hearing generally supported the "Occupational Safety and Health Small Employer Access to Justice Act," H.R. 2731, but some urged Norwood to go further.

Rep. Major Owens, D-NY, the ranking member of the committee, sounded a note of dissent, as did other Democrats on the panel. Owens contended the bill would likely weaken OSHA's enforcement effort, causing more worker injuries and fatalities. "H.R. 2731 appears to place a higher priority on compensating employers for the legal fees than on protecting the safety and health of workers," he concluded.

But the day belonged mostly to small business owners and others who recounted detailed stories that sought to portray OSHA compliance officers whose arrogance was matched only by their ignorance.

"My experience with OSHA shows how its inspectors can get totally out of control," asserted James Knott, Sr. president of Riverdale Mills Corp., speaking on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers.

The bill would only apply to employers who have fewer than 101 employees and a net worth not more than $1.5 million. This provision displeased Knott, who contended that the bill should adopt the definition used by the Small Business Administration: 500 employees.

Anita Drummond, director of legal and regulator affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors stated her organization "strongly supports the intention of this legislation to level the playing field between an agency and the very smallest of companies when a citation is made."

While many trade associations are in the habit of disputing the effectiveness of lost dollars and enforcement actions in causing behavioral change, Drummond and ABC evidently disagree at least when it comes to OSHA.

Drummond found fault with the bill's failure to require the compensation for attorney's fees to come directly out of OSHA's budget, because "without this link between enforcement and litigation, behavioral change is unlikely."

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