House Passes Four Business-Friendly Bills to Change OSHA

The Republican-controlled House has approved measures that would allow small employers to recover legal fees whenever they successfully challenge an OSHA citation, give companies more time to challenge OSHA citations and expand the size and authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC).

All four bills, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., chairman of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, were approved by the House last year, but they went no further as the Senate's OSHA oversight committee did not hold hearings on the legislation.

This year, however, Norwood's bills stand a better chance of becoming law. The Senate OSHA oversight subcommittee has a new chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and he is a former House colleague of Norwood.

"The fact that Sen. Isakson is a former sponsor of these bills enhances their chance of passage," commented Art Sapper, an attorney at McDermott, Will & Emery, who has testified at Congressional hearings on the legislation.

Asked if Isakson plans to consider the OSHA legislation, a spokesperson responded that the senator intends to work with Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, on "an OSHA reform package that will include Congressman Norwood's proposals." The plan is to roll out the package in July, although the timetable is flexible.

Republican supporters of the four bills (H.R. 739-742) say they will help companies resist what they believe to be OSHA's excessive enforcement powers, while improving safety and job opportunities.

In the floor debate on the bills July 12, Democratic opponents of the measures warned they would seriously undermine OSHA's ability to protect workers.

All four bills were approved by slightly wider margins than last year on a largely party line vote, as the Republicans expanded their majority in the House following the 2004 election.

The House debate revealed two starkly different visions of what OSHA's enforcement powers are and ought to be. The bill that appeared to provoke the most vehement controversy, H.R. 742, would allow companies with 100 employees or fewer to recover attorney fees when they prevail against an OSHA citation.

"This is the worst of all the OSHA bills before us today," contended Rep. Major Owens, the ranking Democrat on Norwood's subcommittee.

Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., argued that if prosecutors had to be sure they would win every case, they would not bring any enforcement actions.

"The basic question here is whether we want to so chill and corrode the enforcement powers of the agency that we will wipe them out altogether," said Andrews.

But Norwood and other Republicans countered that too often, OSHA succeeds in bullying smaller employers into settling unjustified citations because the cost of litigation is too high.

"They [OSHA] need to know what they're doing before they drag people into court," Norwood asserted. "They need to be right."

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