Senate Panel Debates OSHA Enforcement Policies

Rep. Charlie Norwood's legislation to change the OSH Act dominated the first hearing held by the newly constituted Senate OSHA oversight subcommittee, even though the panel's new chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., did not hold the hearing to consider Norwood's bills.

The three senators present at the May 10 hearing heard conflicting testimony, as industry witnesses -- and Norwood, R-Ga., himself -- complained that "gotcha" OSHA enforcement persists, while a labor representative called for strengthening the agency's powers, especially with respect to criminal prosecutions.

Perhaps the most important question facing the subcommittee and the full Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) is whether it will consider Norwood's OSHA legislation or a different OSHA bill proposed by the current chairman of HELP, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

Norwood's bills (H.R. 739, H.R. 740, H.R. 741 and H.R. 742) would enable small businesses to contest OSHA citations if they miss the 15-day response deadline, enlarge and strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission and award lawyers' fees to small companies when they defeat a contested OSHA citation in court. The House Education and Workforce Committee already has approved the measures, which are strongly supported by business interests.

Enzi's SAFE Act is a complex bill that would, among other things, address hazard communication and increase criminal penalties in OSHA willful fatality cases. Enzi said he would introduce an updated version of the bill offered in the previous Congress as S. 2719, but business groups have opposed it and it has not attracted Democrat support either.

One Capitol Hill insider said privately that Isaakson is being pulled in two different directions: He supports Norwood's bills, but he does not want to antagonize the chairman of the full committee, Enzi.

"The senators are still negotiating, dancing around their individual agendas," said the insider.

A Senate committee staff member confirmed that no decision has yet been made on whether the panel will consider the Norwood bills.

One sign of the complicated political situation is that even though the hearing was not supposed to be about Norwood's legislation, Norwood was the first witness to testify, and he strongly defended his bills as "common sense" measures that would protect employers and prevent OSHA from abusing its authority.

"Gotcha enforcement does not improve workplace safety and it does not promote economic growth," Norwood declared.

The lone Democrat present, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., observed that, "several members of Congress have suggested changes to OSHA," and then argued against any of weakening OSHA's enforcement authority.

"As I look at the OSHA staff levels, enforcement history and penalty assessments, frankly, the picture is not very encouraging," said Marray. "OSHA does not have enough inspectors to protect American workers."

Isakson revealed little about where he stands on OSHA reform, although he did attempt to steer a middle course between the conflicting images of OSHA.

"In the broad middle we're in … we need to work for two things," said Isakson. "One is good law that protects the health and safety of workers, and second is a proactive compliance attitude on behalf of business and the regulator."

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