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WASHINGTON-Congress will take another shot at reforming the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

A bipartisan congressional group unveiled the newest reform legislation, the Safety Advancement for Employees-or SAFE-Act last week. According to one of the bill's Senate co-sponsors, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the measure is designed to let employers who want safe workplaces get compliance evaluations from qualified third-party consultants.

"In addition, the SAFE Act includes additional voluntary and technical compliance initiatives to assist employers in deeming their worksites safe for their employees," said Sen. Enzi in a statement.

The measure drew largely from a bill sponsored by Sen. Enzi earlier this year as well as another OSHA reform act sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. Sen. Gregg is a co-sponsor of the new bill as well.

The House version is sponsored by Small Business Committee Chairman James Talent, R-Mo., and has won the support of several Democrats who spoke in support of the measure at the Capitol Hill news conference unveiling the SAFE Act.

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Public Health and Safety, promised to move quickly on the measure.

Business groups and risk managers welcomed the bill. One major insurance association that supports the bill, however, is questioning the details of the third-party consulting provision.

Meanwhile, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee has scheduled confirmation hearings to begin this week on the nomination of Charles Jeffress to become the new assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA.

The centerpiece of the proposal would allow businesses to contract with third-party auditors "qualified" by the Labor Department to measure their compliance with OSHA regulations. Employers who chose to use third-party auditors would be exempt from OSHA civil penalties for two years if they followed the auditors' recommendations and brought their workplaces into compliance. Employers that did not make a good-faith effort to remain in compliance still would be subject to civil penalties.

Among other things, the measure would:

Require that 15% of OSHA's annual appropriations be used for education, consultation and outreach programs.

Mandate that standards be submitted to the National Academy of Sciences for review before being issued.

Establish continuing education requirements for OSHA inspectors.

Make employees responsible when their actions jeopardize workplace safety if their employers have complied with safety and health regulations.

Codify current OSHA administrative policy banning quota-setting in regard to the number of inspections carried out, citations issued or penalties collected.

Provide "alternative methods affirmative defense" for employers cited for OSHA violations. Under this defense, employers that can show their employees enjoyed equal or greater protection by alternative methods would not be subject to OSHA citations.

Set a variety of factors OSHA must consider in assessing penalties, including the size of the employer, history of previous violations and probability that the violation would result in injury or illness.

Reduce penalties for non-serious paperwork violations.

Promote voluntary employer-employee workplace safety committees.

Permit employers to institute mandatory alcohol and drug testing programs.

The Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. supports the idea of third-party audits because of the two-year exemption from penalties, said Lance Ewing, chairman of New York-based RIMS' health and safety committee and loss control administrator for the Philadelphia School District.

"It's always been a major frustration when an OSHA inspector shows up and has no knowledge of the industry they inspect, and then they hide their ignorance behind the General Duty Clause," which says employers must protect employees from anything that causes harm, said Mr. Ewing.

RIMS' concern is who is going to qualify the auditors and whether their knowledge would be industry-specific, he said. He also noted that by Internal Revenue Service standards, the auditors would be contractors, not OSHA employees, which could raise questions as to where their allegiances would lie.

Committing 15% of OSHA's annual funding for consultation is also a good idea from a risk management perspective, he said. Risk managers often turn to their brokers or consultants for advice. But when they call the government, "they get no help except an audit," he said.

In addition, most risk managers would embrace the employee responsibility section, said Mr. Ewing. RIMS also welcomes the bill's call for elimination of penalties for non-serious paperwork violations, he said.

Keith Lessner, vp-safety and the environment for Alliance of American Insurers in Schaumburg, Ill. said: "We do support OSHA reform. I think all parties realize that there's a need to make OSHA work more fairly, make it work better and to make it work more efficiently." He called the bill "philosophically a step in the right direction."

"The way to make OSHA work better is to narrow the focus" of inspections, he said.

But he questioned whether the use of third-party auditors would accomplish that goal. For example, unscrupulous employers could use third-party audits to avoid inspection, he said. The problem would be when an auditor, anxious to keep an account, wouldn't be zealous enough, he said, which would be the opposite of the overzealous OSHA inspector of the current system

"It's an unrealistic approach to think that the threat of inspections will make every employer keep a safe workplace," he said.

In addition, third-party auditing raises liability questions, said Mr. Lessner. For example, if an auditor certifies a workplace as being safe and a worker is seriously injured, is the employer or the auditor liable, he asked.

"I don't think it's realistic to imagine that there will be third-party audits without more regulatory controls on the third-party auditors and the employers who use them," he said.

Pete Lunnie, executive coordinator of the employer-backed Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health in Washington, said, "It's a realistic, practical approach." He said the measure would provide an opportunity to get more Democratic support than previous bills had, such as a more comprehensive reform bill sponsored by Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., a few years ago.

Noting that COSH had supported the Ballenger bill, Mr. Lunnie added that "we do think there are issues that were not included in the bill that warrant attention." He also said, "We think there's a potential for getting something through Congress" with the SAFE bill.

"I'm not sure there's anything in there that hasn't been discussed, directly or indirectly, in the president's reinvention initiative," he said, saying it is now "time to fish or cut bait" for the White House.

The nation's largest labor federation does not share that view.

"This bill really represents a step backward in the legislative activity. Essentially what it does is adds to Sen. Enzi's earlier bill a number of the most objectionable provisions of the Gregg bill of the 104th Congress," said Peg Seminario, director-safety and health for the AFL-CIO in Washington.

"The bill takes away OSHA's mandate to enforce the law, it takes away the right of a worker to receive an OSHA inspection in response to a valid complaint, it continues a proposal to allow employer domination over safety and health committees in the workplace and proposes to establish an unwise and unworkable scheme of substituting private consultation for OSHA inspections," she said.

"This legislation has not attracted broad support, and given that it is essentially a retread of what failed in the last Congress, hopefully it will not garner any further support in this Congress.'