Federal agencies

Industry reps call for OSHA compliance assistance during House hearing

OSHA hearing
Photo: House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats / Flickr

OSHA should work more as an “assister” than an enforcer. The agency should write standards in easy-to-grasp language, accompanied by fact sheets and other guidance materials. OSHA’s website should become more user-friendly, and the agency needs more consistency in enforcing its current standards.

These suggestions were among those made by three industry representatives during a Feb. 27 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

The panelists:

  • J. Gary Hill, representing the National Association of Home Builders
  • Eric Hobbs, a labor and employment attorney representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • Peter Gerstenberger, senior advisor for safety, standards and compliance with the Tree Care Industry Association

The hearing also included testimony from David Michaels, former OSHA administrator. 

In his opening statement, Hill pointed to OSHA’s collaboration with NAHB on a confined spaces fact sheet, released in July. He added that the agency should communicate more with small-business owners through avenues such as town halls and listening sessions and via online methods.

Hill also suggested OSHA make “user-friendly improvements” to its website and that agency guidance be “simple, straightforward and easy to digest.”

Hobbs offered recommendations on improving OSHA’s “attitude and relationships with stakeholders.” He claimed the agency “dismissed legitimate concerns” during some of its rulemaking and further hinders its relationship with employers by issuing press releases after citations.

Hobbs and Hill also reiterated one of the major talking points of Secretary of Labor R. Alexander Acosta: compliance assistance. In its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, OSHA is seeking a $5.1 million increase in compliance assistance funding, 24 new compliance assistance specialists and eight staff members for its Voluntary Protection Programs.

In contrast, Michaels, who left his position as OSHA administrator in January 2017, said that although some employers will respond to the “carrot” (compliance assistance) approach, some respond only to the “stick” (enforcement).

“Some need a very big stick, and some need no stick at all,” Michaels said. “OSHA needs all of those tools. To say to do one and not the other doesn’t work.”

He said assertions that OSHA does not partner with industries and views all employers as villainous is “really discrediting the agency and is not based in fact.”

On the topic of regulation, Michaels said no empirical evidence exists that regulations kill jobs, but “powerful evidence” suggests OSHA standards save lives. An estimated 14,000 workers died on the job in 1970, according to the agency; that number was 5,190 in 2016.

“OSHA standards don’t kill jobs,” Michaels said. “They stop jobs from killing workers.”

Hobbs acknowledged the need for enforcement but said consistency is an issue, partly attributable to the retirement of experienced OSHA inspectors and the hiring of new ones.

“The standards themselves, and even the compliance guidance, are so complicated [OSHA inspectors] don’t understand the standards,” he said. “In fact, I’ve run into area directors who do not understand the standards.” Hobbs gave examples of inconsistencies from those directors on lockout/tagout inspections.

Whether the suggestions presented during the hearing will be considered is unclear, as at press time OSHA was without a permanent leader. Scott Mugno’s nomination as assistant secretary of labor initially was sent to the Senate on Dec. 13 but had to be resubmitted Jan. 18 after a new session of that legislative body was convened.

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