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IT'S HARD TO ARGUE with the need to reform the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the reform bill unveiled last week by a bipartisan group of lawmakers would go a long way toward reaching that goal.

The Safety Advancement for Employees Act, drawn largely from previous measures, incorporates reforms that enjoy widespread support, such as banning quotas based on citations issued and penalties assessed, eliminating penalties for certain paperwork violations and earmarking a small portion-15%-of OSHA's annual appropriation for consultative services. Some of these common-sense reforms already have been instituted administratively by OSHA as part of its reinvention drive, and the new reform bill would simply codify them.

The principal backers of the new measure wisely avoided the temptation to micromanage the agency or to effectively gut its enforcement powers by requiring that the lion's share of its budget be devoted to education and consultation, as have some previous reform bills.

In short, we think this bill strikes the right balance of desirable reform with what is politically feasible.

Our only major caution with the bill is that the power and responsibilities of third-party safety auditors should be very carefully considered before the bill is finalized. As the measure reads now, after being certified by the Labor Department, third-party auditors could be called upon to conduct inspections, make recommendations and then declare their clients in compliance if their recommendations are followed. The clients then would be exempt from OSHA penalties for two years.

Such an arrangement could raise conflicts of interest, however. Would an auditor anxious to keep a contract overlook a violation and hope nothing happened? Who would be liable if something did indeed happen if an auditor missed an obvious hazard? Would some unscrupulous employers use outside audits as smokescreens to avoid inspections? And, who would qualify as a third-party auditor-would loss control professionals have to undergo a new certification process? Would auditors be industry-specific, or would they be generalists?

All these questions will have to be answered carefully and definitively.

The SAFE Act probably is the best OSHA reform vehicle Congress is likely to see in its current session. If the questions surrounding the third-party auditor provision can be satisfactorily resolved, the SAFE Act deserves swift approval and a presidential signature.