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UE NEWS HEALTH AND SAFETY


From Frontal Assault
To Sneak Attacks

UE News, February 1997

Subdued by their recent election losses, Gingrich Republicans are backing away from the sweeping attacks on OSHA which they tried to pass in the last session of Congress. Instead, as the 105th Congress begins, look out for a series of sneak attacks on worker health and safety rights from anti-labor Republicans and Democrats.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Cass Ballenger (R., N.C.), author of the infamous OSHA "deform" bill in the last session, apparently will not re-introduce the bill again this year.

In the Senate, Sen. James Jeffords (R., Vt.), considered one of the more moderate Republicans in the Senate, takes over from former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R., Kan.) as chair of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which handles all OSHA bills in that chamber. In one of his first moves, Jeffords assigned oversight of health and safety issues to a new subcommittee headed by the relative newcomer, Sen. Bill Frist (R., Tenn.), the only former physician in the Senate, rather than keeping it for himself, suggesting that new health and safety bills may not be high on Jeffords’ agenda. In view of the anti-labor stance of so many in the Senate, this might be a plus for worker health and safety.

One area where anti-OSHA members of Congress and Senators are expected to try keeping OSHA "in line" is any new ergonomics standard. A industry-led coalition emerged in 1993 which got Congress to pass a ban on OSHA’s developing an ergonomics standard, despite the fact that more than 200,000 U.S. workers are crippled each year by carpal tunnel syndrome and related disorders, some of them permanently. Last July, a coalition led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) overturned this ban. But OSHA, burnt once, has moved very slowly on a new ergonomics standard since then.

OSHA ACTION: 'AT A GLACIAL PACE'

In fact, as some observers have noted, OSHA is moving glacially toward a new ergonomics standard. John Martonik, acting director of Safety Standards for OSHA, describes his division’s goal this year not as issuing a standard, but developing a "proposed standard" on ergonomics. Workers who are in desperate need of relief now may have to wait until the next millennium.

Beside its power of the purse, Congress has one more new tool in its efforts to rein in OSHA. While defenders of OSHA were fighting off OSHA budget cuts and legislation such as the Ballenger bill, Congress quietly passed the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 (SBREFA for short.)

This bill sets up a review panel to screen each and every proposed OSHA standard to assess its impact on small business. This review alone is expected to delay all OSHA standards by about three more months, according to agency officials. Proposed standards the panel doesn’t like will be sent to Congress for approval — for the first time in OSHA’s history.

The first test of this new Congressional power will come when the new proposed tuberculosis standard to protect health care workers comes before them in a few months. We’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, keep your local’s political action committee going, and keep up the pressure on elected political representatives.

• • •

Besides legislative battles, federal OSHA will face a number of other important issues during 1997. A few key ones include:

  • Selecting a new OSHA director to replace Joe Dear, who resigned. President Clinton may take many months to select a new, permanent director — Dear’s selection took almost one year. Such a delay would set back every OSHA activity from standards-setting to enforcement.

  • Cooperative compliance ("Maine 200") programs. As noted in this column in recent issues of the UE NEWS, OSHA has cut inspection by 40 percent in the last two years and is developing "cooperative" statewide programs with employers. As of Jan. 1, these programs were operating in 11 states, with 18 more states in some stages of plan development. All states under federal OSHA jurisdiction are to have these ill-conceived programs in place by the end of the year. These programs result in more cooperation with employers and less enforcement of OSHA standards.


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