New Congress … New Ballgame?

The winds of change are blowing in Washington, D.C. But what those changes will mean for occupational safety and health is a matter of speculation.

When the new Congress takes office in January, Democrats will take control of the two committees that have oversight of workplace safety and health: Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts will chair the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), while Rep. George Miller of California is the presumptive chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. For the most part, stakeholders interviewed by Occupationalhazards.com said they expect the Democrats to ramp up oversight – and perhaps funding – of OSHA and other safety and health agencies.

In particular, National Safety Council President and CEO Alan McMillan predicted that Congress might grill OSHA about its recent emphasis on compliance assistance, strategic partnerships and education and outreach.

"Those are not improper things for OSHA to focus on," McMillan said. "But I think to the extent that there may be some in Congress, the business community and the labor community who might believe that there has been an over-emphasis – or a perception of over-emphasis – on those things rather than enforcement … I think you will see the new House and the new Senate committees asking those questions."

More Funding?

Stakeholders such as Daniel Shipp, president of the International Safety Equipment Association, hope the increased Congressional oversight will be accompanied by a boost in funding for OSHA and other agencies.

"We hope that [the change in Congress] will produce stronger Congressional support for the missions of these agencies," Shipp said. "Because quite frankly there have been some people in the Republican majority – in the House and the Senate – who have always wished that OSHA would go away."

Joel Shufro, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, asserted that OSHA has been "underfunded, understaffed and under attack" since the agency came into existence in 1971. Still, he blamed the Bush administration for thinning the agency's enforcement ranks, failing to promulgate any major safety and health standards and placing a "renewed emphasis on consultation rather than enforcement."

"The fundamental challenge," Shufro said, "is going to be to move back to a model or a program that enforces the law, on the first instance, requires that employers are in compliance, provides stringent penalties for those that don't comply and protects workers for exercising their rights."

Shufro said he is hopeful that Kennedy, Miller and other Democrats will turn up the heat on OSHA to prevent the agency "from sliding even further under the influence of the business community."

"I think that you will see, for example, the Bush administration will not be able to make appointments of the sort that they have made," Shufro said, referring to new MSHA Administrator Richard Stickler, who was rejected twice by Senate Democrats before Bush appointed him while Congress was in recess. Such appointments "are embarrassing, as far as I'm concerned, at best."

A Shot in the Arm for Labor

Considering the Democrats' close ties to unions, Shipp and other stakeholders asserted that the change in Congress likely will be a shot in the arm for the struggling labor movement.

"The unions' health and safety agenda has gotten new life, because the unions themselves have gotten new life," Shipp said. "Whether or not they will expend a lot of energy on health and safety is hard to say."

Kennedy already has made it clear that some of his top priorities are pro-union issues. After the elections, he announced that his first priority will be to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, and he promised to try to pass legislation that will protect workers' rights to organize. His agenda also includes passing tougher workplace safety legislation.

Shufro contended that any boost in the influence of the labor movement – which was fractured and weakened when the Service Employees International Union and several other unions seceded from the AFL-CIO in 2005 – will be a boost to occupational safety and health.

"Safety and health is tied to the health of the labor movement in a fundamental way," Shufro said. "And I think that one of the reasons that we have what I think is a decline in the effectiveness of safety and health has to do with the decline to 8 percent of the work force organized in the private sector."

Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, said she believes Kennedy and Miller "will be fully engaged in focusing on" workplace safety and health issues that are important to unions and to workers.

"I think one of the things that came out of this election is, obviously, broad concerns about the conditions that are facing workers with respect to their jobs, their wages, their health care, their pensions but also the conditions on the job," Seminario said. "And while safety and health was not one of the top-tier issues [in the election], it's part and parcel of the concerns about working people in this country."

As 2007 approaches, Occupationalhazards.com is examining some of the major issues impacting the EHS community. This is the second in a series of online articles. For more, read "Safety Issues on the Table" in the December issue of OCCUPATIONALHAZARDS.

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