House Passes OSHA Reform Package

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The U.S. House of Representatives has passed four much-discussed bills designed to help businesses have more flexible dealings with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The bills were introduced by Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-GA). National home builder groups commended the passage of bills while Democrats argue that the passage of these bills will undermine OSHA's ability to protect workers and enforce violations effectively. The passage of these bills came mainly as a result of Republican support.

“The legislative package approved by the House will make regulatory compliance more cost-effective and make OSHA more user friendly for small businesses, while improving housing affordability and continuing to protect the safety of workers in the home building industry,” said David Wilson, President of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) in a NAHB statement recognizing the passage of these four bills.

H.R. 739, the “Occupational Safety and Health Small Business Day in Court Act,” will allow businesses more than 15 days to respond to an OSHA citation. The bill passed 256-164.

“H.R. 739 alters this process in a one-sided manner that disadvantages workers, encourages litigation and undermines health and safety protection,” stated Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Rep. Major Owens (D-NY) in a letter.

H.R. 742, the “Occupational Safety and Health Small Employer Access to Justice Act.” allows businesses with less than 100 employees that defend themselves successfully against an OSHA citation to recover attorney's fees more easily. The bill passed 235-187.

Representatives Miller and Owens consider this bill “ the greatest threat to worker safety and health.”

“In effect, unless the agency can guarantee that it will win every case it brings, H.R. 742 punishes OSHA for trying to enforce the law,” the Representatives Miller and Owens stated. “The OSH Act does not afford workers a private right of action. If OSHA fails to enforce the law, workers have no other means of doing so.”

“Never again would OSHA agents be able to intimidate small businesses by filing frivolous charges, knowing that it will cost the business owner more to defend themselves in court than paying the fine they don't feel is fair,” said Rep. Charlie Norwood, sponsor of the four bills. The bill will put a stop to “OSHA court-cost blackmail,” he said.

Two bills were identified as “key votes” in a letter sent to all House members by the NAHB prior to deliberating the OSHA package to stress their importance to the housing industry.

H.R. 740, the “Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission Efficiency Act” corrects what has been a less than adequate situation for companies involved in hearings of the three-panel Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC). With only three administrative law judges, they frequently do not have a quorum and have to delay hearings until such time as they do. This bill adds two more administrative law judges to the panel and should reduce hearings backlogs. Democratic opposition point out that this will allow the Bush administration to select judges that may be hostile to worker interests. The bill passed 234-185.

H.R. 741, the “Occupational Safety and Health Independent Review of OSHA Citations Act,” requires that in OSHA cases that are appealed to the courts, the judges must defer to the OSHRC. Democratic opposition said that this bill will lead to the expanded interpretation of rulings by the Labor Secretary, who is responsible for OSHA enforcement. The bill passed 226-197.

Although thwarted in previous sessions, the chances for the bills to pass the Senate might have improved this year. The Senate subcommittee overseeing OSHA reform is chaired by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA). With Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), he is dedicated to introducing companion bills and promises “quick action.”

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