Contractors Federal agencies Silica Voluntary Protection Programs

Perez defends OSHA agenda

The secretary of labor testifies on silica, cooperative programs

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Photo: House Education and the Workforce Committee

Confronted with criticism of OSHA’s regulatory activities, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez is stressing the importance of striking a balance between compliance assistance and enforcement.

“I’m a big believer in ‘an ounce of prevention’ theory. I’m also a believer in that you also need to enforce,” Perez said during a March 17 hearing before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee. “It’s never an ‘either/or.’ It’s a ‘both’ – and then some.”

A day later, Perez testified before the House Education and the Workforce Committee. At both hearings, which focused on the Department of Labor’s fiscal year 2016 budget, Perez sought to validate OSHA’s regulatory and assistance-based initiatives, defend the agency’s pursuit of a new silica rule, and paint a simpler picture of what critics have called a “blacklist” for federal contractors who break labor laws.

Cooperative and compliance assistance

During the March 18 hearing, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) accused OSHA of holding up the Voluntary Protection Programs and the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program as “stellar examples” of helping employers while at the same time attempting to limit participation in them.

Walberg’s comment referred to a guidance document that encouraged some employers to move from SHARP to VPP.

OSHA is not attempting to limit participation in either program, Perez said; rather, the moves were made to better manage resources. He noted that SHARP initially was designed to help small employers. However, over time, small subsidiaries of large employers entered the program. The goal of the guidance, he said, was to move those small subsidiaries into VPP, but that idea was dropped in response to recent feedback.

At the March 17 hearing, Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA) highlighted OSHA’s 6-to-1 ratio of enforcement to compliance assistance officers and asked why the agency is requesting additional funding for enforcement officers.

Perez’s answer: To even the playing field. He said business owners have complained that they play by the rules while other employers win contracts with low bids by sacrificing safety and violating the law.

Federal contractors

Part of the administration’s efforts to hold safety violators accountable involves an Executive Order that will bar such entities from receiving federal contracts. During the March 18 hearing, committee chair Rep. John Kline (R-MN) characterized the Executive Order as one that would create a “blacklist” and questioned Perez on what analysis DOL has conducted to ensure the order will not overburden contractors.

The vast majority of contractors are following federal rules, the secretary responded, and their responsibility under the Executive Order will be to check a box saying as much. He added that acquiring federal contracts is not a right but a privilege, and the privilege is forfeited when employers engage in “bad behavior.”

During the March 17 hearing, Perez said contractors who have federal violations will receive compliance assistance from DOL personnel.

Silica

GOP committee members at both hearings questioned Perez about the need for a new silica rule, pointing out that only about 70 percent of employers comply with the current standard. They stated that a new rule with a stricter permissible exposure limit would be costly for some industries, including foundries, construction and hydraulic fracturing.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) asked during the March 17 hearing why the rule does not permit personal air-filtered helmets as the primary dust control measure, adding that such respirators “work kind of great.” A physician by training, Harris noted that respirators can protect against bacteria, so they also would protect against silica.

Perez said OSHA has conducted an inclusive rulemaking process in which representatives from a variety of industries have submitted comments that are being considered. The hazards surrounding silica have been well-documented for decades, he added, and compliance with the forthcoming rule is technologically feasible.

“We’re trying to save lives here, and exposure to silica kills,” the secretary said.

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