House Panel Approves Four Bills to Change OSH Act

The House Education and the Workforce Committee voted April 13 to send legislation to the House floor that would strengthen the hands of companies facing OSHA enforcement actions by amending the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act.

The measures (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 bills, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., were approved by the Republican-controlled House last year and are expected to pass again this year. The legislation later died in the Senate, however, as the chair of the Senate's OSHA oversight subcommittee, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chose not to consider the package.

The bills' chances in the Senate may have improved somewhat this year, as its OSHA subcommittee's new chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is a former House member who voted for the Norwood bills before winning a Senate seat in the 2004 election.

Asked if Isakson's committee will take up the Norwood bills this year, a spokesperson said, "He thinks they have merit and deserve consideration in the Senate."

As happened last year, partisan wrangling marked the House committee's approval of the proposed changes to the OSH Act.

"The legislation in no way diminishes the worker protections of the Occupational Safety and Health Act," asserted Norwood.

In his opening statement, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, contended the "reforms would improve worker safety by making it easier for employers to work voluntarily and proactively with OSHA to ensure workplaces are as safe and secure as possible."

Democrats on the panel, led by Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., disagreed.

"An all-out assault on workers' rights and labor unions," is how Owens characterized the legislation.

Owens offered an amendment to the Norwood bills that would have made it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison when a worker dies as a result of an OSHA willful violation. The amendment was deemed "not germane" to the legislation and therefore ruled out of order by Boehner.

H.R. 742, which would award attorneys' fees to small companies who prevail in court, provoked the most vehement opposition by House Democrats.

"This is the most dastardly of all these bills," contended Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J. "It's a 'look the other way' bill … it takes the incentives away from [OSHA] inspectors to do the right thing."

Norwood countered that his bill is careful to define small companies as those with fewer than 100 employees and a net worth under $7 million. In the past, he argued, fear of litigation costs have forced such small organizations to accept OSHA citations even when companies believe the enforcement actions are unjustified.

Norwood said that if the government was certain of its case, it could still cite small businesses. "But if you're not sure," he concluded, "leave 'em alone."

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