Chronicling OSHA in 2007: The Year Ahead

Super Tuesday is finally here, sending voters in 24 states to the polls to cast their presidential primary ballots. There’s no doubt that safety and health stakeholders will tune in to learn the outcome, as many strongly feel that a new administration – especially a Democratic one – will impact the way OSHA operates.

Occupational safety and health experts made no secret of their disappointment in the way OSHA increased its focus on compliance assistance over enforcement and standard-setting efforts since President George W. Bush came into power.

“I think OSHA clearly reflects the philosophy of Bush administration,” said Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers Health and Safety Fund. “I don’t know how much they [OSHA] are being told to do this or that, but I think this is clearly an approach the Bush administration supports or else they wouldn’t do it that way.”

When the Democratic Congress became a majority party in November 2006, many safety and health experts hoped Congressional oversight would prompt OSHA to exercise its enforcement capabilities. For more on how Congressional oversight influenced OSHA, read Chronicling OSHA in 2007: Congressional Impact.

Now, safety and health stakeholders are crossing their fingers that the new administration will be a Democratic one. A 2007 poll in The Hill, a publication that covers White House and Congressional political news, suggested that OSHA’s workplace ergonomics standard, annulled by President Bush in 2001, will be back on the national agenda if a Democrat wins the top job.

Although stakeholders are hesitant to voice a favorite candidate, many are hopeful, even confident, that a new administration will help OSHA adopt a more balanced focus on enforcement, compliance assistance and standard-setting efforts.

Hart: Improvements Possible, but Not Much Change

Don Hart, president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), offered that it doesn’t matter which political party wins the 2008 presidential election, as any new administration will be more supportive in enforcing and updating safety and health regulations. However, he cautioned that the improvements would be marginal: Since there are many other pressing issues at this time, the current presidential candidates aren’t putting safety and health on the top of their to-do list, he stated.

“I think things will get slightly better, but there won’t be too much change,” he said. “Whoever becomes president will be a little more supportive because the present administration isn’t supportive. But health and safety doesn’t live by votes so other issues might get their attention first.”

AIHA Government Affairs Director Aaron Trippler said that if a Republican wins the election, he hopes the administration appoints an OSHA administrator who will be proactive in implementing programs that address the benefits of professional certification, like former OSHA chief John Henshaw. Trippler also said he hopes that the next president, if a Republican, will at least take action to update permissible exposure limits (PELs).

Democratic President Expected to Renew Enforcement, Standard-Setting Focus

If a Democratic president were to take office, however, Trippler said he was sure that the ergonomics standard would be reinstated. He also is confident that OSHA would implement a more focused approach on enforcement and devote more resources to standard-setting initiatives.

ORC Worldwide Senior Vice President Frank White agreed, adding that these issues will represent the more significant changes if a Democratic administration were to take power.

“You will probably see more resources devoted to standard setting and I think that will be one of the more significant changes, especially since OSHA hasn’t focused enough on setting new standards, and it hasn’t even caught up with the old hazards,” White said.

White emphasized that with a Democratic Congress already in power, passing additional legislation could ensure more standards are put into place, such as regulations for the toxic chemical diacetyl. He also surmised, however, that if a Republican were to take the presidential seat, it wouldn’t be “a bad thing” since he may be more aggressive at updating standards.

Charles Jeffress, who once oversaw the agency during the Clinton administration and is now a chief administrative officer for the Legal Services Corp., predicts that a Democratic administration will be a “pretty aggressive one” dedicated to enforcing labor protections and paying attention to workers’ needs.

“I think having a Democratic president in power would make a lot of difference,” Jeffress said. “I don’t think there is one you can point to that would be better than the other when it comes to enforcing workplace protections. I’ve listened to them all and they all seem to be committed to wanting to help workers.”

OSHA, meanwhile, has already outlined its goals for the year. At the agency’s press briefing announcing President Bush’s FY 2009 proposal, Foulke stated that OSHA expects to publish four proposed rules and four final rules this year. Some industry stakeholders may view this proposal as ambitious, considering that the agency has imposed only two major safety rules since Bush took office.

But we can only wait and see what happens.

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