Q&A with Rep. John Kline

'Tough choices'

The new chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee vows to examine workplace protections and question OSHA’s approach to safety.

By Kyle W. Morrison, senior associate editor

Following four years of Democratic control of the House of Representatives, Republicans regained majority in the chamber this past November. With control of the House comes control of its committees, including the one tasked with overseeing issues such as occupational safety and health – the Education and the Workforce Committee.

Shortly after the election, Rep. John Kline (R-MN) was named chairman of that committee. An eight-year veteran of the House, Kline served on the committee during tragedies such as the BP Texas City and Upper Big Branch Mine-South explosions.

In an interview with Safety+Health magazine, Kline explains his plans for ensuring protection of worker safety and health, while also pursuing initiatives to spur job growth in a recovering economy.
The following interview was conducted via e-mail, and Kline’s responses are presented in their entirety.

Safety+Health: When named chairman of the committee, you said your agenda would include creating a “smaller, more accountable government.” How does this agenda affect agencies such as OSHA or the Mine Safety and Health Administration, both of which already are among the smallest in the government in terms of funding and personnel?

Kline: Considering the fiscal challenges our country is facing, every dime of taxpayer money must be counted and justified before it is spent. We have to make some tough choices to bring our budget back into balance, to rein in the size and cost of the federal government, and to ensure the effective enforcement of our laws. The American people deserve to know that the agencies and programs that fall within my committee’s jurisdiction are serving the best interest of the individuals those programs are intended to serve, as well as taxpayers.

S+H: You have said your goal for federal agencies overseeing workplaces is to provide “certainty and simplicity.” Could you elaborate on what you mean, how it relates to occupational safety and what you will do to ensure it?

Kline: Over the last two years, we have experienced a lot of economic uncertainty, which has had a chilling effect on America’s job creators. We must ensure the policies coming out of Washington do not undermine efforts by small businesses and entrepreneurs to create jobs and economic opportunities. I intend to maintain aggressive oversight of the policies that govern the nation’s workplaces – to ensure employers both understand their responsibilities for worker safety and have the confidence they need to grow and create new jobs.

S+H: What is your take on the more enforcement-oriented approach OSHA has taken toward workplace safety under the Obama administration? Do you believe OSHA is striking the right balance between enforcement and compliance assistance?

Kline: I am concerned with OSHA’s current punishment-before-prevention approach and question whether it is in the best interest of workers. Our goal should be to prevent accidents before they occur, and I don’t believe “shaming an employer” is the best approach to accomplishing that goal.

S+H: Your colleagues across the aisle have called for several updates to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, a law that has not been significantly updated in 40 years. In your opinion, should any changes or improvements be made to the law? If so, what?

Kline: When I was selected to serve as chairman, I pledged that job creation and American competitiveness would be at the forefront of the committee’s agenda. The OSH Act will be an important part of that debate moving forward. We should ask whether it is promoting or undermining the competitiveness of the nation’s workplaces and consider whether it is adequately meeting the needs of our 21st century workforce.

S+H: OSHA administrator David Michaels calls an injury and illness prevention program standard his top priority, and several companies and organizations consider such programs highly effective in preventing workplace incidents. What is your take on this potential rule, and would you support it? Why or why not?

Kline: I don’t think it is entirely clear what administrator Michaels intends to do with the proposed program. I look forward to the results of this summer’s small business impact review, and believe there are a lot of questions that need to be answered before the administration moves forward. 

S+H: Regarding the Upper Big Branch Mine-South tragedy, you have warned against proceeding with mine safety legislation before knowing all the causes of the explosion. How is this different from when the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act was signed into law less than seven months after the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, but more than a year before MSHA’s final report was released?

Kline: As I said last December, Republicans have made clear our willingness to work in good faith to address weaknesses in the law governing mine safety and its enforcement by federal officials. Last year, we identified preliminary areas for improving current law, and MSHA has taken steps along the way toward strengthening enforcement of existing law. We will look to the final report on the Upper Big Branch tragedy to examine what additional steps and reforms may be needed to protect miners.

S+H: In the last Congress, both Democrats and Republicans introduced legislation to improve mine safety. Are there any measures in those proposals you believe could be pursued to improve mine safety?

Kline: I think members on both sides of the aisle agree we need to do a better job of identifying and punishing bad actors. We need to empower MSHA to enforce the law and hold it accountable for doing so. The safety of all workers will be a top priority for the committee during the 112th Congress, and I will work hard to find common ground to enhance the safety of underground miners.

S+H: Since 2003, you have served on the Education and the Workforce Committee under both Democratic and Republican chairmen, and most recently as a ranking member. What have you learned from this experience, and what improvements to the workplace safety community do you hope to accomplish in the next two years?

Kline: Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate the committee’s great tradition of tackling tough issues. While our members don’t always agree, we are able to disagree without being disagreeable. I hope to continue that tradition in the years ahead as we work to address the challenges facing the nation’s workplaces and ensuring the health and safety of America’s workers.

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