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Dialing down aspirations

October 1, 2011

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After the Obama administration took charge in Washington, newly sworn-in Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis declared there was a “new sheriff in town.” The implication was clear – under this administration, OSHA would focus on enforcement.

A funding boost allowed the agency to hire more inspectors. The development of standards that had seemingly grown stagnant began moving forward with more energy. The agency issued record penalties and used hard-line rhetoric against recalcitrant employers.

Nearly three years later, the administration may be learning that accomplishing its goals is a bit harder than polishing a new sheriff’s badge and an overly aggressive law enforcement position may not be the most effective method.

The agency has received criticism from industry groups on several of its proposals, including a number of its regulations, interpretations and enforcement efforts. While OSHA has taken a decidedly more aggressive stance against violators of safety laws, agency officials have been quick to point out that they are only focusing on “bad employers” who repeatedly break the law.

“Responsible employers who invest in the health and safety of their employees are at a disadvantage competing with irresponsible employers who cut corners on worker protection and hazard abatement,” agency administrator David Michaels said in an open letter to his staff last October. “Strong enforcement, accompanied by meaningful penalties, levels the playing field.”

This stance has not done much to pacify people who suggest that regulations “kill jobs” and the proposals OSHA is making now will do more harm to the economy than good. Michaels often has said this sort of industry talk against OSHA proposals is similar to what was said about proposals in the past, but the recent criticism does seem to be affecting the agency.

Slowdown

In the past year, OSHA has steadily rolled back its initial ambitions. A new noise interpretation that would require more engineering controls was abandoned in January after industries warned it would be too costly. A proposal to add a musculoskeletal disorders column to the OSHA 300 injury log was temporarily shelved in January when employers complained it was too complicated.

The Obama administration’s reaction to an upsurge of anti-government regulation (commonly found among Tea Party members) could slow down the promulgation of several standards. An Executive Order issued in January instructs departments and agencies to review old standards that may be overly burdensome and consider costs in the development of new standards. By and large, OSHA already does this, but the presidential edict may result in the agency slowing down an already slow process.

The anticipated update to OSHA’s standard on crystalline silica is stuck in a holding pattern. Although a notice of proposed rulemaking was expected in June, the proposal was still being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget when Safety+Health went to press. Since March, OMB has hosted nine meetings on the rule with stakeholders (many of whom have been industry groups) – more meetings than any other recent rule in the past seven years, according to White House records.

Additionally, OMB on Aug. 17 requested departments and agencies present the White House with two budget proposals – one with a 5 percent funding reduction and one with a 10 percent reduction. This stems from the Obama administration attempting to ease concerns with the growing U.S. deficit by showing the government can tighten its belt.

Not all of these cuts may take place, and it remains to be seen how OSHA will be affected. But the very idea that the agency could receive such a drastic reduction that could jeopardize effective enforcement, compliance assistance and the promulgation of modern workplace protection standards is disheartening.

Actions speak louder than words. And although Michaels and company are still pursuing their agenda – one that is certainly more aggressive than the previous administration’s agenda – one cannot help but wonder if their hopes have been tempered.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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