New Congress Brings New Opportunity to Promote Commonsense OSHA Reform
If I've learned one indisputable fact about the federal government these past 10 years I've served in Congress, it's that common sense is the rarest of all commodities on Capitol Hill.
Consider, for example, the way Washington, D.C.'s federal bureaucrats have historically said "thanks" to millions of small business people (mason contractors included) for providing critically important goods, services and jobs that drive our country's economy. As you well know, the appreciation that should be shown has typically been replaced with only more and more rules, regulations and red tape. That's a "thanks" hard-working Americans could live without and one we've tried to change in Congress in the last decade.
One place where the federal government's "thanks" has improved significantly is at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). After all, it wasn't that long ago that just the utterance of those four simple letters together were enough to send shivers down the spine of just about anyone working for a living in the U.S. Through its overly complex regulations and "gotcha" mentality of enforcing them, OSHA was rightfully perceived as an agency less concerned with delivering a safe work environment for American workers and more interested in delivering the wrath of the federal government down upon those business folks who weren't up to snuff.
The good news is that OSHA is changing. As Chairman of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee in the House's Education & the Workforce Committee, I've encouraged and witnessed OSHA become an agency much more willing to work with businesspeople through cooperative partnerships to promote safety at work and reduce injuries and illness.
The better news is that the results are changing, too. According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupational injury and illness rates have dropped for five consecutive years ? down to the lowest level since the U.S. began collecting this information (5.3 cases per 100 workers).
Who knew? Apparently working with businesspeople to make workplaces safer works better than working against them.
All kidding aside, while OSHA's new approach has been a big step in the right direction, there is still more that needs to be done to help businesses achieve the goal we all want: fewer injuries and illnesses in the workplace.
In the 108th Congress that just adjourned, I introduced four commonsense bills that would continue to build on the significant progress made at OSHA. While the measures passed out of Committee and on the House floor with significant bipartisan support, our day in the Senate never came. So I'll be introducing these again in the 109th Congress and pushing for Senate action as well.
First, the Occupational Safety and Health Small Business Day in Court Act would give the commission reviewing OSHA citations more flexibility where it needs it. It would allow those folks to make exceptions to the arbitrary 15-day deadline for employers to file responses to OSHA citations when a small business misses the deadline by mistake or for good reason.
Secondly, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission Efficiency Act would increase the membership of the reviewing commission from three to five members. This would ensure that cases are reviewed in a timely manner.
Also, the Occupational Safety and Health Independent Review of OSHA Citations Act would ensure that the commission reviewing citations issued by OSHA is an independent judicial entity. This is to make it clear and simple that the reviewing commission, not OSHA, would be the party who interprets the law and provides an independent review of OSHA citations.
And lastly, the Occupational Safety and Health Small Employer Access to Justice Act would finally follow through on the promise of allowing small businesses to recover legal costs incurred when unnecessary enforcement actions are taken against them by OSHA.
Beyond focusing on these bills and others to improve and enhance OSHA legislatively in the 109th Congress, I plan to keep a close eye on potential new regulations regarding silica exposure from OSHA. There's no doubt that doing the utmost to reduce the potential for illness and disease at the workplace related to silica exposure is critically important. However, it's also critically important that OSHA continue to work with businesses to make darn sure that existing standards are being met, awareness and education are encouraged in the workplace, and every opportunity to reduce exposure within the current system is being utilized. The absolute last thing that needs to happen on this front is for OSHA to revert back to the "gotcha" mentality and heavy-handed ways of over-regulating that gave us the higher injury and illness rates of days gone by.
When it comes to safety on the job, results do matter. I look forward to working in Congress to help OSHA and America's businesses build on the good results from the past five years.
About the Author
Charlie Whitlow Norwood, Jr. was the U.S. Representative for Georgia's Ninth Congressional District. Norwood served as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. He was vice chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Health from 2001-2004, and vice chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the Committee on Education and the Workforce from 1997-2000. He was a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Committee on Education and the Workforce throughout his congressional career, and served on the Commerce Committee Energy and Power Subcommittee from 1995-2000.