Washington, D.C. --Senator Mike Enzi's bill that would modernize the Occupational Safety and Health Act, vaulted through the Senate Labor Committee today.
Enzi's bill, the Safety Advancement For Employees Act (SAFE), passed through the committee with 10 members voting for passage and eight voting against.
Enzi was extremely pleased with the committee's action, especially with the speed at which it has moved through the process. Every member of the committee, Republican and Democrat who spoke, praised Enzi for his personal style and efforts to gather everyone's ideas.
"I made an effort to meet personally with every member of this committee and I believe it's because of this outreach to them and all the people interested in workplace safety, that this bill was able to flow through committee without being stopped or delayed by a filibuster," said Enzi.
The vote to send the bill to the Senate floor was made along party lines with Republicans supporting the SAFE Act and Democrats casting negative votes. The committee voted on eight amendments. An amendment offered by Enzi that tightened up language of the bill and made modifications such as giving the Department of Labor more time to implement changes made by the SAFE Act, was passed by voice vote. Seven attempts made by Democrats to significantly alter the legislation were defeated by vote margins nearly identical to the final passage vote.
Enzi's bill is designed to encourage employers, employees and OSHA to work together toward the common goal of a safer workplace. The SAFE Act would allow businesses to utilize independent auditors to evaluate the safety of its operation. The measure would allow employees to share with businesses their safety ideas through employee participation health and safety programs. The legislation would also involve the National Academy of Sciences in the OSHA rule making process to assure that the regulations being passed are based on sound science. These and a host of other improvements are included in the SAFE Act.
Enzi was encouraged by the thoughtful discussion of the amendments at today's markup and believes there's room for the two parties to come together on a number of their differences before the bill goes to the floor.
"It's past the point of outright opposition now. We aren't just talking about concepts anymore," said Enzi. "During today's markup they put their cards on the table. Now we can work on resolving specific issues and it's been my experience that when you do others become committed to the bill."
Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., offered three amendments. One would have made current misdemeanor criminal penalties into felonies. A second amendment would have essentially eliminated the third party audit provision of the SAFE Act. His final amendment would have allowed OSHA to investigate deaths that occurred on farms with less than 10 employees.
Enzi said Reed's amendment which would have increased fines and penalties took a drastically different direction from the bill. Enzi said no one had raised that possibility and it should go back through the same process as the other items on the bill. Enzi said third party audits are an essential tool to making the workplace safer because OSHA doesn't have the resources to inspect and advise every business. Enzi said he would be agreeable to Reed's third amendment if it were redrafted to clarify the powers OSHA's would be able to utilize in the investigation.
Enzi said Senator Christopher Dodd's, D-Conn., amendment that would have required companies with any size construction projects on their property to hire safety agents and develop written safety plans, was just too much added bureaucracy. Enzi said each construction company is unique and this one-size fits all mandate would take too much flexibility away.
Washington Democratic Senator, Patty Murray's amendment would force employers with 11 or more employees to establish a joint safety and health committee. The committees would be made up of specified numbers of managers and union members when applicable. The SAFE Act would allow businesses to set up voluntary safety committees made up of employees and the employer. Enzi said a voluntary approach was best because "Congress can't mandate cooperation." He said successful committees are established with cooperation of both employers and employees because they see the need and have the desire to do something about the problem.
Enzi said Senator Paul Wellstone's, D-Minn., effort to provide protection for employees who "blow the whistle" on employers for alleged violations, did much more than that. It would have created huge delays in solving safety problems. Enzi believes giving the employees some form of anonymity would be preferable to Wellstone's approach which would "add to the already burdensome litigation problems we have."
Enzi is hopeful that the SAFE Act will be one of the first legislative items the Senate will take up when senators return from working in their states during the recess. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., a cosponsor of Enzi's legislation sets the legislative calender.
"As a freshmen, Capitol Hill veterans told me not to expect to get the lead on a bill. After I was given the lead on OSHA they told me not to expect a hearing on it. After the hearing they said I shouldn't even dream of getting a bill marked up," said Enzi. "It's been marked up. I wonder what they will tell me next."
The SAFE Act's path to becoming law is growing shorter. The bill must pass the Senate and House. A joint conference committee must work out differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill, if there are any and the President must sign the bill.