House Democrats Urge Colleagues to Defeat 'One-Sided' OSHA Bills

As the House readies to consider four Republican-sponsored bills that would strengthen the hand of companies caught in OSHA's crosshairs, two House Democrats are ratcheting up their efforts to build opposition to the legislation. In a letter to their colleagues, the two House members say they believe the bills would roll back safety and health protections for millions of American workers.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., point to H.R. 742 which would allow companies with fewer than 100 employees to recover attorney's fees if the business owner successfully challenges an OSHA citation as "the greatest threat to worker safety and health" of the four bills.

"In effect, unless the agency can guarantee that it will win every case it brings, H.R. 742 punishes OSHA for trying to enforce the law," the congressmen state in the letter. "The OSH Act does not afford workers a private right of action. If OSHA fails to enforce the law, workers have no other means of doing so."

Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., who introduced H.R. 742 and three other related bills on Feb. 10, summarizes H.R. 742 as a bill that will put a stop to "OSHA court-cost blackmail."

"Never again would OSHA agents be able to intimidate small businesses by filing frivolous charges, knowing it will cost the business owner more to defend themselves in court than paying a fine they don't feel is fair," Norwood said.

As for other bills in the legislation package, Miller and Owens say "experience has not shown" that it's necessary to boost the number of Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) members from three to five, which is one of the provisions of Norwood's H.R. 740. They also take issue with "limiting OSHRC membership to those with 'legal training.'"

"In fact, the commission has benefited from the participation of knowledgeable non-lawyers," the Democrats' letter states.

Norwood, on the other hand, said the bill's impetus is to provide small businesses with a speedy trial, as having five OSHRC members would make it easier to reach its required two-commissioner quorum.

"Small businesses can't wait months on end for OSHA to decide their case, just because not enough OSHA commissioners are available for a hearing," Norwood said.

H.R. 739, which grants OSHRC additional flexibility to waive the 15-day deadline for employers to file responses to OSHA citations, "creates a legal loophole" for employers, according to Miller and Owens.

"The deadline for an employer's response was set at the 15-day mark to encourage both the timely correction of cited workplace hazards and expeditious handling of cases," the Democrats state. "The commission already has authority to review any missed deadlines on a case-by-case basis in a manner that protects both employers and workers.

"H.R. 739 alters this process in a one-sided manner that disadvantages workers, encourages litigation and undermines health and safety protection."

Norwood said the bill simply asks OSHA "to be a little more lenient when small businesses need extra time to respond to OSHA citations."

Senate Approval in "Record Time"?

Norwood's legislation should look familiar to those who closely follow EHS regulatory developments, as the bills have been introduced before.

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

As reported on Occupational on Feb. 11 ("Rep. Norwood Introduces OSHA 'Reform' Bills"), the bills' chances in the Senate may have improved this year, as the new chair of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over OSHA reform, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has promised "quick action."

Norwood, in fact, announced in February that the bills are being re-introduced "with a huge political difference."

"By the fact we passed these important reforms last year in the House by such convincing margins, I look forward to pushing them through to the Senate in record time," Norwood said. "And this year, we have a brand new Senate Workplace Safety chairman who'll know what to do when he gets them."

The House Education and the Workforce Committee voted April 13 to send the bills to the House floor for consideration.

"For decades, small employers have battled with ways to increase workplace safety, without leaving themselves open for outrageous fines from over-zealous OSHA agents," Norwood said. "This shouldn't be the case OSHA should instead be working hard to help employers, especially small businesses, to make their workplaces safer, instead of harassing them. I am very interested in using these bills to continue the transformation of OSHA into the best friend workers could have in helping employers make our workplaces safer."

Miller and Owens, on the other hand, said Norwood's bills "would impede the enforcement of worksite safety and health provisions at the very time when more and more Americans have identified safety as one of their foremost concerns."

"By seriously weakening the enforcement of U.S. safety standards, these bills would take us in exactly the opposite direction."

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