Congressional hurdles

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The presidential election is only part of the equation on Nov. 6. The outcome of numerous House and Senate races may have an impact on the government’s workplace safety agenda.

Federal agencies have some leverage in deciding how they operate under the control of any given administration, but many aspects are out of their control and can only be changed through laws passed by Congress. For instance, the maximum amount of penalties OSHA can fine an employer is set in the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which has not been significantly changed in decades.

In recent years, proposed reforms have featured sweeping changes that come almost exclusively from Democrats. Due to a slim majority in the Senate and some complex voting procedures needed to pass legislation in that chamber, most reforms never made it into law.

With that in mind, Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of occupational safety and health, said any major legislative changes for OSHA likely will not happen unless there is a change in the makeup of Congress, which currently is divided by a Republican-controlled House and a Democrat-controlled Senate.

Seminario admitted that greater opportunities for change may exist regarding mine safety and health because mining is a more defined industry sector. However, Frank White speculated that such legislative changes may not even take place unless a new disaster occurs. White, who is global director for Mercer ORC HSE Services in Washington, noted that mine legislation has been driven mostly by tragedy, citing the 2006 Sago disaster that drove reforms later that year.

While an Obama administration might be more willing to push Congress to take up legislative challenges before such a disaster occurs, the same might not be said of the president’s opponent, Mitt Romney.

“In the absence of some tragic circumstances which gets the public and Congress’ attention, you’re probably less likely in a Republican administration to see that kind of legislative reform, at least in the near term,” White said.

Even in such a situation, however, reforms could still fall flat. In the aftermath of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion, no legislative reforms have made it into law.

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