Washington Update

Washington Update: Let’s try this again

For a bill to become law, it must pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the president. However, if a bill is not passed within two years, or a single congressional session, the process must start all over again.

According to sources, as few as 4 percent of introduced bills are passed into law. This is why it’s not uncommon to see a number of bills “reintroduced” from one congressional session to the next.

In the current Congress, several pieces of workplace safety legislation have been reintroduced.

The Protecting America’s Workers Act (S. 665), which would vastly overhaul the Occupational Safety and Health Act – was first introduced in 2004. “Updating our workplace safety laws and enforcement tools will reduce the number of work-related injuries and deaths,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), chairman of the Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee, said in a March statement. “Every worker deserves to be confident that while doing their jobs, their employers are doing everything they can to protect them.”

PAWA would do everything from expand OSHA’s coverage to increase civil penalties, so it’s no surprise that in nearly a decade, it has not even come close to becoming law. In an interview with Safety+Health shortly before she retired last year, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) – who had championed PAWA for several years in the House – floated the idea of breaking the legislation into individual components to try to get parts of it passed. But even that hasn’t happened.

Similar to PAWA, the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act (H.R. 1373) – named for the late West Virginia senator and staunch mine safety advocate – would expand the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s federal authority and increase penalties for mine operators. Unlike OSHA, however, MSHA’s authority has been strengthened by legislative updates, most recently the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, which came about in response to the deadly Sago Mine explosion in 2006.

Another mining disaster – the 2010 Upper Big Branch tragedy – prompted the Byrd legislation. Compared to its actions on the MINER Act, however, Congress has not moved nearly as quickly on the current proposed changes. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) has called the lack of response to the UBB disaster, which killed 29 miners, “shameful.”

The Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust, Explosions and Fires Act (H.R. 691) would require OSHA to promulgate a standard regulating the hazard. First introduced in 2008 in response to a series of deadly explosions, the bill actually passed out of the then-Democrat-controlled House that year, only to flounder in the Senate.

The Healthy Families Act (S. 631 and H.R. 1286) has faced similar difficulties. The bill, first introduced in 2004, would require employers to provide every worker with a minimum number of paid sick days. Although not strictly workplace safety-related, paid sick days help prevent workers from being forced to choose between working when sick or not getting paid. Employees who work while sick can cost employers up to $160 billion each year because of lost productivity and infecting co-workers, according to a press release from bill sponsors Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

Many workplace safety advocates consider these bills necessary to improve workplace safety. But plenty of other people disagree – hence the decades-long delay in moving legislation forward. In today’s hyper-partisan climate in which even previously routine measures cannot pass without controversy, the bills are all but doomed. So why continue introducing them?

To keep the pressure on.

Every time the bills are reintroduced, they appear in the public again. Every time a disaster occurs, it is an opportunity to point to legislation that may have helped prevent it. During every debate that touches on the issues covered in the bill, proponents of the legislation can fight for their cause.

And then slowly – too slowly, for some – support may grow.

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

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