Republican Senator's OSHA Reform Bill Includes Tougher Criminal Penalties

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., has introduced legislation that seeks to improve hazard communication and provide incentives for employers to use third-party safety and health consultants, while making it a felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison if a worker dies as a result of a willful violation of OSHA standards.

Under current law, the maximum criminal penalty for willfully violating OSHA rules is a misdemeanor conviction and six months in jail.

The SAFE Act (or "Safety Advancement for Employees Act of 2004, S.2719) is an expanded version of legislation Enzi introduced 7 years ago but that the Senate did not approve.

Sens. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., have introduced legislation recently that would also make it a felony willfully to violate OSHA rules in fatality cases, but Enzi's bill calls for shorter prison sentences and lighter fines than his Democratic colleagues.

Until now, the Republican-controlled Senate has resisted the efforts of Democrats to increase OSHA penalties. Enzi's bill, introduced July 22, the day before Congress adjourned for its August recess, reveals there is now bipartisan support for making it a felony to willfully violate OSHA standards if a worker dies as a result.

As the chairman of the Senate's OSHA oversight subcommittee, Enzi's views on OSHA reform carry added clout.

While Corzine and Kennedy have focused their efforts on greatly increasing OSHA's enforcement powers, Enzi's bill contains several other provisions that are intended to prevent accidents by appealing to employers.

"After an injury or death has occurred, it's too late for the victim and their family," said Enzi in a statement. "Accidents need to be avoided through a system that harnesses the help of safety experts to achieve compliance with safety laws."

The SAFE Act attempts to accomplish this by encouraging employers voluntarily to enlist the help of OSHA-certified (but private sector) safety and health consultants. Employers who utilize this program and comply with safety laws will be exempt from OSHA's civil penalties for 1 year, although OSHA will still be able to inspect these worksites.

The bill seeks to improve the effectiveness of OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard, by requiring the agency to develop and post on its Web site model material safety data sheets for the highly hazardous chemicals listed on the Process Safety Management Standard.

Another issue related to improving chemical hazard communication is tied to the "Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labeling of Chemicals," (GHS) adopted in 2002 by the United Nations. OSHA alone cannot commit the United States to the new system, but S. 2719 establishes a commission of relevant federal agencies and private stakeholders to make recommendations to Congress about the adoption of G.H.S.

While accepting the Democrats' position that stronger OSHA enforcement is necessary, in his floor statement Enzi seemed to be trying to distinguish his bill from the approach of Corzine and Kennedy.

"Enforcement alone cannot ensure the safety and health of America's workforce," said Enzi. "Government and the private sector can and must work together to create a culture where safety and health is the number one priority."

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