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UE NEWS HEALTH AND SAFETY


Gutting OSHA

UE News, December 1995

AFTER MONTHS OF DELAY, so-called Senate "moderates" have come up with a new "OSHA Reform" Act (S 1423) which is supposed to be a moderate answer to the Ballenger bill (HR 1834), reported on in this column in October. This new bill is anything but moderate. It is a four-square attack on the health and safety protections American workers have won over the last two decades.

What's more, Senate sponsors are trying to ram the legislation through the Senate quickly, before workers and the public understand the bill and organize opposition to it -- as we have done so effectively around the Ballenger bill. The first hearings on the Senate bill were held in November, just one week after the bill was introduced, and then in the first week of December. This is almost record time for the Senate, which traditionally spends many weeks and months deliberating major (and minor) national issues.

The new bill, known as the Gregg-Kassebaum bill, shifts the focus of OSHA activity away from enforcement of standards to assistance for employers and restricting worker rights. The bill would exempt even the most hazardous U.S. workplaces from inspection, sharply reduce OSHA fines, let OSHA issue warnings instead of fines, and further limit investigations of worker complaints. It also sneaks in a broad, far-ranging change in the National Labor Relations Act by allowing employers to set up company unions, now outlawed, around health and safety and other issues.

The new Senate bill was introduced by Nancy Kassebaum (R., Kan.), chair of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, and Judd Gregg (R., N.H.), well known for his hardline, anti-labor stances. The bill is called the Occupational Safety and Health Reform and Reinvention Act (S 1423). Other cosponsors include Sens. James Jeffords (R., Vt.), Sam Nunn (D., Ga.) and Slade Gorton (R., Wash.).

Both the AFL-CIO and the Clinton Administration have expressed strong opposition to the Senate bill. AFL-CIO Vice Pres. Linda Chavez-Thompson and OSHA Dir. Joe Dear testified against the Gregg-Kassebaum bill at the first Senate hearing in November.

THE DETAILS

Below are some provisions of the new bill:

  • Employers exempt from routine OSHA inspections if their safety record (number of reported incidents) is below the average for their industry. Thus in dangerous industries like foundries, shipbuilding and poultry processing, if employers are just below average for their industry, they would be exempt from inspection. This provision alone would exempt almost half of all U.S. plants and companies from inspections.

  • Employers would also be exempt from routine OSHA inspections if a consultant hired by the company walks through the plant and certifies that the employer has a plan to identify and correct the hazards found. This paid company consultant would essentially replace the OSHA inspector. So good-bye to any independent health and safety enforcement you've had in the past!

  • Fines are slashed dramatically. The maximum fine for each so-called non-serious violation would be reduced from $7,000 to $100. Also, penalties could no longer be levied for failing to post an OSHA sign, or to fill out and post the annual OSHA log.

  • Worker OSHA complaints would be downgraded. All worker complaints to OSHA would have to be in writing, and would be immediately sent to your employer, but without your name if you request. OSHA would have total authority to decide whether or not to conduct an inspection about your complaint. If OSHA decides to inspect it, it can do so by telephone or by fax.

  • OSHA can refuse to investigate a worker complaint if it was filed for "other than safety and health reasons." So if contract negotiations are coming up, or if you are in the midst of contract negotiations, or if you are fighting management over speed-up, kiss any worker complaints good-bye, OSHA won't inspect. Apparently some congressional representatives believe that workplace hazards are not dangerous during contract negotiations!

  • OSHA inspectors will no longer be able to see records of company health and safety studies or reviews. These often provide evidence that management knew about problems but did nothing about them.

  • Employers cannot be cited for a violation if they had no prior knowledge about it. In effect, this is a reward for employer ignorance. And remember, the OSHA inspector won't be able to look at management records anymore to determine exactly what the company knew.

  • Also, employers can't be cited if the violation was caused by "employee misconduct." So now a good company defense is: "It's not our fault, we told our employees not to put their hands in the machine, or to wear a face mask, etc. etc."

  • Finally, the bill amends the National Labor Relations Act to allow companies to set up company unions and call them health and safety committees, or quality circles or whatever issues they want to address. This would repeal a recent pro-labor (!) decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The above are just some of the key provisions of the Gregg-Kassebaum bill. Does this sound like a moderate bill to you? Yet the Republicans are trying to pass this off as more moderate than the Ballenger bill. Get your local's political action committee busy and tell your senator that you oppose this bill. Write letters yourself. Demand that full hearings be held on the bill; don't let them railroad it through.


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