Washington D.C.-- Small businesses across the country will be getting more help from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to understand and comply with safety regulations if legislation successfully added last night by U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., to a Senate appropriations bill becomes law.
Pulling in senators from both sides of the aisle, Enzi garnered enough votes to keep his safety consultation funding amendment to the Labor Health and Human Services Appropriations bill from being tabled. Fifty-one senators voted for the amendment with 44 voting to table it. The amendment would balance the planned $33 million increase in OSHA's budget so half of the increase goes toward helping businesses understand regulations and the other half would be put toward enforcing the rules.
"All businesses, businesses like Dodd's Bootery in Laramie, Corral West Ranchwear in Cheyenne or Bubba's Barbeque in Jackson, have to read through and understand 1,200 pages worth of OSHA safety rules. OSHA can help businesses understand the rules and prevent accidents, but instead of concentrating on prevention of accidents, OSHA's focus has been on punishing businesses for non-compliance, much of the time after accidents have occurred," said Enzi. "That's the wrong approach. The right approach is to help businesses understand and comply with the rules through consultation. This needs to be backed up with enforcement, but putting all resources on that side of the scale throws everything off kilter."
Senators Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. argued against Enzi's amendment saying it would drastically cut OSHA's enforcement efforts.
Enzi reemphasized that OSHA's enforcement budget will be increased. In fact it will be increased by more than $16 million with another $16 million being put toward consultation programs.
"Strengthening OSHA's proactive consultation approach empowers both OSHA and the employer to achieve safer work sites," Enzi said. "This amendment will help extend OSHA's consultation programs to even more employers who are seeking safety and health solutions. The result will mean vastly improved safety for America's workers."
Work on the Labor Health and Human Services Appropriations bill to which the Enzi amendment is attached, is expected to be finished next week.
(The following is a copy of the remarks Senator Enzi made on the Senate floor)
Today, as Americans head off to work, 17 of them will die and 18,600 of them will be injured on the job. I want to repeat that: 17 working Americans will not be returning home tonight because they will die on the job. As Chairman of the worker safety subcommittee, I feel responsible to those families for making sure that we are doing all we can to prevent these horrible accidents from occurring in the first place. I feel responsible for finding solutions that will help protect more workers from harm.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is the government agency responsible for regulating safety laws in America. The way that OSHA is supposed to work is this: OSHA should be providing helpful assistance to the overwhelming number of employers who are actively pursuing safer workplaces. Simultaneously, OSHA should be effectively targeting those employers who are wilfully disregarding safety laws, inspecting them, fining them, and then following up to make sure that bad practices are stopped before accidents occur. But what everyone knows that is not what is actually happening. What is happening is that OSHA lumps all employers together--both the good and the bad--treats them the same, and tries to inspect and fine them all, no matter how small or ridiculous the violation. Meanwhile, serious and potentially deadly practices go uninspected and unstopped. The result is disastrous, and unfortunately, is often fatal.
Here's why. As reported in the Associated Press, three quarters of work sites in the United States that suffered serious accidents in 1994 and 1995 had never been inspected by OSHA during this decade. The report also showed that even OSHA officials acknowledge that their inspectors "do not get to a lion's share of lethal sites until after accidents occur." Because it takes OSHA over 167 years to reach every work site in this country, the fact is that OSHA neither helps those good faith employers who want to achieve compliance with safety laws, nor effectively deters bad employers from breaking the law. This point is so important that I want to say it again: Because it takes OSHA over 167 years to reach every work site in this country, the fact is that OSHA neither helps those good faith employers who want to achieve compliance with safety laws, nor effectively deters bad employers from breaking the law.
OSHA's response has been to ask Congress for more and more enforcement dollars. I say that that response is no response. I say that that response only begs the question. Using OSHA's framework, the scenario would be as follows: since it takes 167 years for OSHA to investigate every work site in this country, we would need to increase OSHA's enforcement budget 167 times in order for OSHA to inspect every work site every year! That is, of course, a reckless and unrealistic suggestion that doesn't even get to the heart of the problem. But that's not even the worst part. The worst part is what OSHA's response for more enforcement dollars says to the 95% of American employers that OSHA estimates are trying in good faith to comply; what it says to them is: "Hey, Mr. Good Faith Employer, we know you are trying to comply, but you're out of luck. Because even if you're trying to be safe, if you don't know what you're doing, or if you make a wrong interpretation of the statute, we're going to fine you. And we're going to fine you big."
Here are the facts. Employers have to read through, try to understand and interpret, and implement over 1200 pages of highly-technical safety regulations. You know, we hear big numbers like that all the time in Washington, but I want to make this as clear as possible. So I've brought a little show and tell. Let me show you what every employer in this country has to read through and try to understand. It's incredible. Just imagine, Dodd's Bootery in Laramie, or Corral West Ranchware in Cheyenne, or Bubba's Barbeque in Jackson have to read through and try to understand all five of these huge volumes. There are more pages of OSHA regulations than pages in Gone With the Wind, the Canterbury Tales, and the Old and New Testaments of the Bible combined.
Adding insult to injury, in many cases, OSHA's regulations are so complicated and complex, that, even if you read through it all, deciding on one "correct" interpretation of a rule is nearly impossible. Take OSHA's draft safety and health rule for example. What this draft rule would require is for almost all employers, regardless of size or type, to put in place a written safety plan. Sounds good, right? Not so fast. This draft rule is not only mandatory, but the elements of the rule are completely subjective in nature. For example, the rule requires a program (and I quote) "appropriate" to conditions in the workplace, an employer to evaluate the effectiveness of the program "as often as necessary," and "where appropriate" to initiate corrective action. So I throw this question out to you: How often is "as often as necessary"? Is it once a month, once a week, every day? I can envision a thousand different responses! So how on earth do we expect small businesses to cope-not only with reading through all these five volumes-but also to understand what is meant by them and then to draw up a safety plan. That, however, is exactly what we are expecting them to do.
The safety subcommittee which I chair has had two hearings examining the effects of OSHA. The first was a hearing to highlight how so many good faith employers want the safest of workplaces, but are drowning in the over 1200 pages of highly-technical safety regulations. Every single one of the employers who came to the hearing agreed that they were left on their own to comply with every one of the thousands of rules without helpful assistance from OSHA.
The second hearing that we held was about the flip side of that coin--about how OSHA is not deterring the bad employers from wilfully violating safety laws either. The subcommittee heard from family members who lost loved ones in workplace accidents and how OSHA neither helped prevent these accidents from occurring nor adequately responded after the accidents took place. To those people who have told me that "the New OSHA" is on the right track, and that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," I ask you to read through our hearing transcript and see if you change your mind.
Since I don't have much time, I would like to tell you about just one of the witnesses who testified before our subcommittee named Ron Hayes. Before 1993, Ron and his family didn't know much about OSHA and were not all that active on the worker safety scene. But in 1993, Ron's 19 year-old son, Patrick Hayes, was killed at his job at a grain elevator in Florida, after being pulled under the grain and suffocated. Losing his son changed Ron's entire life, and since that time, Ron has worked day in and day out to get answers about how to make other employees safer and healthier. Ron and his wife, Dot, struggled to understand why more hadn't been done on behalf of their son, and what could be done in the future to change the tide of worker injuries and deaths. Ron and Dot founded the Families In Grief Hold Together, or FIGHT, Project to help other families enact changes in the arena of worker safety. Ron Hayes is one of the most courageous and honest people I have ever met in my life, not to mention the fact that he has become one of the most proficient OSHA experts in the country, and his story continues to inspire me and push me forward. I would like to read an excerpt from Ron's testimony.
"Each year over 10,000 people are killed on the job. In 1993, one of those who died was our beloved son, Patrick Hayes.
"I did not come here today to rebuke or chastise anyone, I am simply here to plead-no, beg you great statesmen to work together to come up with positive solutions for a better agency. No one wants to get rid of OSHA, we just want the agency to do its job, protect workers, help train and support business. I ask you great statesmen to lay down your party affiliations and work toward a common goal.
"I often wonder why the good businesses in our country continue to stay safe...Sometimes they are at a disadvantage by their own good deeds. These good businesses build into their product or bids safety measures and are sometimes undercut or under bid by other uncaring business owners, so under our present OSHA system, what is their benefit? The bad companies know OSHA is ineffective and because of the length of time it will take OSHA to inspect every work site or get around to inspecting them, the odds are on their side and even if caught, they know OSHA will not do much.
"OSHA's reactive enforcement methodology has not and is not working, letting OSHA continue in this manner and giving them more and more money each year and getting less and less each year is just crazy. Someone has to take a stand and make some hard decisions for our very future."
Ron's strong, unwavering stand is that OSHA consultation, rather than reactive "find and fine" enforcement, is the answer that will save workers like Patrick from being killed on the job. I agree with Ron, and that is why I am here today with this amendment.
My amendment is simple. It puts half of the $33 million dollar increase in OSHA's budget into consultation programs that help employers know how to comply. The other half is directed toward OSHA enforcement.
First, what is OSHA consultation. OSHA consultation is the effective alternative to OSHA enforcement. It is what is currently working well and is highly-praised by employees and employers, the Agency and the Congress. What it allows is for employers to call up OSHA and ask them to come in and help them read through the five volumes of OSHA regulations, see what applies to them, and how to turn the regulations into tangible safety solutions. It allows employers to ask questions, to get help from the inside, and to partner with the Agency-all without the threat of fines or citations.
Most importantly, consultation works. The fact is that you cannot force an employer to comply with regulations that he doesn't understand or know how to implement, and you cannot threaten employers to comply when they don't know how. If an employer isn't getting the help he needs, an inspection won't make the difference. The key is helping employers to understand what the regulations mean and how they work. Consultation is the answer, because it puts the emphasis on partnership, cooperation, and information-sharing. And if, as OSHA estimates, 95% of American employers are trying to do the right thing, spending money on consultation is money well spent because the vast majority of employers will take OSHA's suggestions to heart and get safer-without the threat of fines or coercion.
But you don't have to take my word for it. Just look at what Vice President Gore has said about the virtues of consultation. In his Report on Reinventing Government, the Vice President concluded that employers should be encouraged by OSHA to use private safety professionals as a way to vastly improve the health and safety of American workers "without bankrupting the federal treasury." Such an approach would "ensure that all workplaces are regularly inspected, without hiring thousands of new employees." By establishing incentives designed to encourage workplaces to comply, "[w]orksites with good health, safety, and compliance records would be allowed to report less frequently to the Labor Department, to undergo fewer audits, and to submit to less paperwork." He concluded by saying that "No army of federal auditors descends upon American businesses to audit their books; the government forces them to have the job done themselves. In the same way, no army of OSHA inspectors need descend upon corporate America."
I agree with the Vice President's praise for consultation. This amendment simply puts the money where our mouths are.
A few final remarks to remind everyone what a balanced approach this amendment really is. Does this amendment tie OSHA's hands on the enforcement front? No. It gives OSHA a 50% increase over its 1999 budget to use for enforcement. Does this amendment strip OSHA's ability to go after that thin layer of bad work sites? No. They have more money to go after those work sites than they did last year. What it does do is help those 95% of employers who OSHA estimates are doing their best to comply with OSHA and to find safety solutions that work.
Beefing up OSHA's proactive consultation approach empowers both OSHA and the employer to achieve safer work sites. By voting in favor of this amendment, OSHA's own consultation programs will be extended to even more employers who are seeking safety and health solutions. The result will mean vastly improved safety for America's work sites.