A less-feisty OSHA is harder to dislike One skeptic is waiting to see if rhetoric is matched by deeds

February 10, 1997|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

No more shrill accusations. No more grumbling about Washington's "baddest" agency.

Instead, when business leaders and conservative Republicans refer to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- an agency they wanted to gut not that long ago -- they're more likely to use words such as "enlightened" and "collaborative."

The change in opinion is not because business executives and their GOP allies have had a change of heart.

Rather, it's because OSHA has become less combative as it tries to protect the safety and health of the nation's workers -- and its budget and staff on Capitol Hill.

The shift from beat cop to social worker has mollified some critics.

Rep. Cass Ballenger, the North Carolina Republican who has been one of OSHA's fiercest foes and the author of several failed attempts to severely limit the agency's powers, has decided to put off proposing any new curbs for the time being, according to aides.

"They [OSHA] have come around in terms of what they say their philosophy is," allows Peter Lunnie, the head of the Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health. But he adds, "We have members who say their rhetoric isn't matched by the practice."

The 6-year-old Washington-based business group has been another of OSHA's most outspoken critics, complaining that its actions often are outdated, costly and unneeded burdens on the business community.

OSHA, of course, has not disappeared. Just this month, it fined Hohman Plating and Mfg. Co. of Dayton, Ohio, $402,200 for 87 alleged violations.

Although critics are less caustic in their public assessments of OSHA, the agency still has many challengers in the GOP-controlled Congress.

This year "won't be any better than any years past," says Joseph Dear, who stepped down in mid-January as the Labor Department assistant secretary in charge of OSHA. A permanent replacement has not yet been named.

OSHA still faces legal battles that slow rule-making on new health and safety standards, he says. It will be hiring again, but it will not be able to make up for the 8 percent drop in staff since 1994.

Plus, it faces a new drag from a 1996 law that requires the agency to examine the impact on small businesses before putting any new regulations into effect.

Congress also is steering OSHA away from enforcement activities -- coming in after accidents or complaints and advocating fines -- by earmarking more of the agency's budget toward helping employers comply with OSHA regulations as an adviser, so-called compliance activities.

Moreover, although business leaders are somewhat relieved, the prospect of OSHA's "reinvention" as an agency that focuses more on major violators and cooperates more with businesses stirs frustration and uncertainty among labor and worker-safety groups.

"OSHA will be under pressure from business to be less nit-picky, and from labor the demand will be for better protective standards and tougher enforcement," Dear predicted.

Unions and advocacy groups applaud the marked increase in the number of citations for significant violations that OSHA has filed against employers in the last few years.

In 1994, there were 69 such citations, which usually involve fines of more than $100,000. Last year, there were 159 citations.

OSHA's budget also is up, to $303.8 million last year and $326 million this year from $296.4 million in 1994.

Virtually all the other numbers regarding OSHA, however, have been going down.

Since 1994, the agency's total inspections have fallen 43 percent, the number of serious citations has tumbled 64 percent, to less than 33,000, and nearly one-third fewer workers are covered by its inspections and other actions.

"We are not into a simple numbers game," says Peg Seminario, the chief safety and health expert for the AFL-CIO. "But we think a credible enforcement threat is the key to this program."

David Vldeck, an attorney with Public Citizen, a Washington-based activist group, is far more critical of the route OSHA has taken. "The Republicans are not so angry at OSHA because it has become a toothless tiger," he says.

Dear explained that the drop in enforcement activity last year was due to the government's shutdown and other budget hang-ups.

And, while Dear heralds OSHA's new emphasis on "collaboration," he says it is not likely to shy from some controversial issues, such as a new regulation dealing with repetitive-stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

He expects the agency to offer a new rule this year aimed at slowing the rise of these injuries. In doing so, however, OSHA risks riling its foes again. Indeed, Republican lawmakers barred the agency from issuing these rules last year.

Another example of how suspicious employers still are about OSHA came last year when the agency said it would offer guidelines for employers on how to deal with workplace violence.

"We stated everywhere that we would not make a standard, and we still got a wide opposition," Dear recalled.

The bottom line for the agency's prospects, experts say, will be what kind of relationship the White House wants to assert with the business community.

In the last few years, the administration has gone out of its way to appear more open to business concerns, while fending off the drive by Republicans to constrain OSHA with laws specifying what it can spend money on, and what it cannot.

Congress is not relenting entirely.

Aides to Rep. John Porter, the Illinois Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that controls OSHA's budget, say GOP lawmakers will insist that OSHA spend a smaller percentage on enforcement next year.

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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