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Regulatory ‘Reform:’
Choking the Life Out of OSHA

UE News, March 1998

For four years now, enemies of labor have been unsuccessful in killing off OSHA by direct frontal assaults. So now they’re trying a sneak attack on OSHA (as well the Environmental Protection Agency) called the "Regulatory Improvement Act of 1998" (S. 981). This bill has been introduced in the Senate with bipartisan support, not only from traditional enemies of labor such as Senators Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) and Ted Stevens (R., Alaska), but also from prominent "moderates" such as Senators John Glenn (D., Ohio) and Carl Levin (D., Mich.) (As the UE NEWS went to press, the bill had not yet been introduced in the House of Representatives, and so it had no House bill number.)

It now takes 10 years to adopt a new health and safety standard, an unacceptably long time when workers’ health and lives are at stake. S. 981 would add many more years, take many more steps and inflict much greater costs on OSHA to adopt any new standards. It would bring the already slow pace of setting OSHA standards virtually to a halt.

If adopted, S. 981 would delay the urgently needed ergonomics standard, which would protect workers in many industries from carpal tunnel syndrome and back injuries. It would halt the OSHA tuberculosis standard, now in its last stages of development. It would also delay for years OSHA’s proposed standards to make all companies develop written health and safety plans.

Here are just a few provisions of the Regulatory "Improvement" Act (S. 981):

  • All proposed new standards would now have to be reviewed by a "peer review" panel of experts. The panel’s meetings would be held behind closed doors; they would not be open to the public. The panel’s membership would have to be "balanced" between industry and labor, which means that companies representing the industries being regulated would be able to fight these regulations in private, behind closed doors.

  • All new standards would have to undergo "comparative risk" analysis and "net benefit" analysis, in addition to all of the different types of analysis already required of current standards. Already OSHA must hold public hearings for all new standards, have a public comment period open to all parties, undertake a health risk analysis, perform a cost-benefit analysis, and submit the results for approval to the federal Office of Management and Budget. But the current reviews are not enough for supporters of this new bill. They want more reviews and more analyses. What they really want is more churning of paper and fewer standards.

  • The so-called Regulatory Improvement bill would specify in detail just how all of these analyses must be done, and then give corporations the right to go to the federal courts to appeal if any of these steps did not meet with their approval. This move to the federal courts will pay the bills for lots of corporate lawyers and their families, and delay needed protections to help workers and their families. And, by the way, corporations already have the right to appeal OSHA standards in the federal courts — and they do, whenever a new standard is adopted. The proposed bill simply expands the grounds for appeal and encourages corporate delays.

  • The bill also requires a look-back review of existing standards every five years to see if they are having the desired effects. If they are not, in OSHA’s or in the EPA’s judgement, then they must be modified or withdrawn. So it now takes about 10 years from the time a union blows the whistle until a new standard is adopted. This new bill now threatens to wipe out any new gains five years after they were adopted. This is not regulatory improvement — it is regulatory rollback.

The main hope of the political forces supporting this regressive bill is that it is cloaked in high-sounding words, in hopes that workers and their unions won’t notice it. Well, we have, and we are putting up a fight against it.

OSHA under President Clinton is doing a poor job in enforcing existing federal safety and health standards. It prefers to "consult" with employers and give them free technical advice.

With OSHA pursuing a deliberate policy of non-enforcement (except for occasional headline-grabbing million-dollar fines), passage of the Regulatory "Improvement" bill would effectively destroy OSHA. With poor enforcement and no new standards, OSHA would be a non-entity.

The Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), is currently considering the bill. Other committee members include Senators John Glenn, Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), Richard Durbin (Ill.) and Robert Torricelli (N.J.). But whatever state you live in, work with your local’s political action and health and safety committees. Contact your Senators and tell them you oppose S. 981.


Late-breaking news: OSHA’s so-called Cooperative Compliance Programs have been put on hold by a Feb. 17 U.S. Court of Appeals decision, the result of a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. OSHA says the programs are voluntary, the bosses say they are not voluntary enough.

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