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WASHINGTON-As Joe Dear trades a job in Washington, D.C., for one in Washington state, he leaves a legacy of "reinventing" the often-criticized Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"Reinvention put OSHA on a new course," said Mr. Dear, the assistant U.S. secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, at a press briefing last week. Mr. Dear, who stepped down as OSHA head last Friday after more than three years at its helm, will become chief of staff to Gov. Gary Locke, D-Wash., this week.

Mr. Dear stresses, however, that a new course does not mean a new destination for OSHA, which remains committed to improving safety in the nation's workplaces. Instead, reinvention of OSHA means moving away from the agency's traditional and much-criticized reliance on fines and sanctions against employers to a more collaborative effort between the safety regulators and the stakeholders in the process: namely business and labor.

Of necessity, reinvention also meant doing more with less, noted Mr. Dear. That has resulted in focusing enforcement efforts on serious safety hazards rather than paperwork violations and other minor infractions.

Mr. Dear credited the reinvention efforts for the fact that OSHA emerged from the 104th Congress unscathed.

'We had a stormy period at the beginning" of that Congress in 1995, he said.

Legislation to overhaul the agency was introduced in both the House and Senate, and a measure drafted by Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., would have abolished OSHA altogether.

Restrictions were placed on what OSHA could and could not do, specifically regarding a controversial proposed ergonomics standard that the House initially banned OSHA from even researching-let alone promulgating.

However, by the end of the 104th Congress last fall, OSHA's budget was increased 7%, the ban on ergonomics research was dropped and the Occupational Health and Safety Act remained unamended.

Mr. Dear said the fact that OSHA ultimately remained untouched by congressional reform vindicates its reinvention efforts.

In addition, "I think OSHA's stakeholders believe the new direction we started is worth pursuing," said Mr. Dear.

He noted that Vice President Albert Gore Jr. remains committed to the effort and that the man who selected Mr. Dear to head OSHA-President Clinton-will also choose his successor.

Last Thursday, outgoing Labor Secretary Robert Reich praised Mr. Dear for having made OSHA "a model of reinvention" as he announced that Gregory R. Watchman, the deputy assistant secretary in charge of OSHA, would serve as acting OSHA chief effective Jan. 11.

Before joining OSHA in 1995, Mr. Watchman had served on the staffs of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee.

At a conference in Chicago last week, Mr. Watchman said that he would continue to push Mr. Dear's reinvention initiatives, including helping employers comply with OSHA regulations, emphasizing results rather than red tape and promoting common-sense regulation.

Mr. Watchman also said ergonomics would remain a focus of OSHA.

Mr. Dear said that the agency would press forward on developing an ergonomics standard, though it would not start with the controversial draft standards released in 1995 (BI, March 27, 1995).

"It's going to be difficult, to say the least, to create standards," Mr. Dear said.

He said that the original effort was like the Clinton health-care initiative in a "microcosm."

It was a sweeping initiative for which there wasn't any appetite and, according to Mr. Dear, there is no question that the controversy over the ergonomics draft was a setback.

Looking at what lies ahead for his yet-to-be-named full-time successor, Mr. Dear said that the idea of using third parties to certify OSHA compliance, which was promoted in the last Congress by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is "an emerging idea."

"It's a big idea. Sometimes it takes a while for big ideas to be feasible," said Mr. Dear.

Among the questions that will have to be answered is what liabilities are assumed by employers that contract with third parties, what role insurance will play, who will accredit the third-party inspectors and how the independence of the third-party inspectors can be guaranteed, Mr. Dear said.

At the end of the briefing, Mr. Dear was asked to assess OSHA's performance.

"It continues to get better, but it could get better faster. That's the challenge I leave to my successor,"he said.