House Committee Approves Business-Backed OSHA 'Reform' Bills

Without a single vote from a Democrat, and with the unanimous support of Republicans, four bills designed to strengthen employers' hands when faced with OSHA enforcement actions passed the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on May 5.

The committee also beat back an effort by Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., to attach an amendment to the bills that would have increased criminal penalties for employers when a willful OSHA citation causes a workplace fatality.

The four reform bills, approved by a committee vote of 22-17, are the brainchildren of Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., chairman of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. A committee staff member said no decision has been made on when, or whether, Norwood's OSHA reform package would be considered by the full House.

  • H.R. 2728 grants the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) additional flexibility to wave the 15-day deadline for employers to file responses to OSHA citations;
  • H.R. 2729 increases the membership of OSHRC from three members to five members;
  • H.R. 2730 intends to clarify and strengthen the power of OSHRC to review OSHA citations;
  • H.R. 2731 allows companies with fewer than 100 employees to recover attorney's fees if the owner successfully challenges an OSHA citation.

"A few small steps," is how Norwood characterized his effort to alter OSHA's enforcement powers. But the bills provoked strong opposition from committee Democrats.

Ranking committee member Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said the measures "cater to special business interests at the expense of average workers." He soon launched into an extended defense of raising the minimum wage.

H.R. 2731 attracted the strongest opposition, as Democrats feared it would cause OSHA not to enforce safety standards unless the agency was certain it would prevail in court.

"We don't need this bill," argued Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J. "All this does is take the close-call cases and tells OSHA, 'don't go after them.'" Andrews said logic required the same treatment for Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement actions, but predicted that such a move would "outrage shareholders."

Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, replied the SEC was outside the jurisdiction of the committee. In his opening statement, Boehner said the Norwood bills would, "enhance business competitiveness and encourage further job creation, but most importantly they will improve worker safety by promoting a climate of cooperation between OSHA and employers that focuses on results."

Owens' amendment received strong support by committee Democrats, but was rejected by Boehner on a point of order. The chairman said it violated House rules because the amendment was "not germane" to Norwood's original legislation.

Boehner also made a more substantive argument against Owens' proposal, contending that "criminalizing OSHA" would hurt workplace safety by destroying employers' willingness to cooperate with the agency.

"If it's not germane now, when will it be?" asked Owens. Boehner replied that there might be an opportunity to consider Owens' proposal at a later date.

Companion bills to Norwood's reform measures have not been introduced in the Senate, and Miller predicted all four bills would be "dead on arrival" there.

Committee Democrats consistently attempted to contrast what they said was the anti-worker bias of the OSHA bills with their party's effort to help workers by raising the minimum wage.

One Capitol Hill insider suggested the Norwood package might be taken up by the Senate as an amendment to a Senate bill that would raise the minimum wage.

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