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WASHINGTON-Charles Jeffress appears to be moving easily along the road toward Senate confirmation to head the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Mr. Jeffress, currently North Carolina's deputy commissioner of labor in charge of that state's own OSHA program, also appears unlikely to deviate greatly from the path marked by his immediate predecessor, Joseph A. Dear.
For example, Mr. Jeffress repeatedly emphasized his commitment to consultation rather than confrontation in his approach to workplace safety during his first confirmation hearing before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last week. But also like Mr. Dear, Mr. Jeffress made clear that OSHA would not shy away from using its enforcement powers to achieve safe workplaces.
Mr. Jeffress took over the North Carolina OSHA program in the wake of one of the state's worst industrial disasters-the September 1991 fire that killed 25 workers at a Hamlet, N.C., chicken processing plant. He has been credited with turning that troubled state program around by winning more funding from the General Assembly and targeting the agency's efforts more effectively.
The full committee is expected to vote on Mr. Jeffress' nomination later this month, and if last week's hearing is any indication, he should have no trouble winning approval.
That was evident as he was introduced by two OSHA critics: Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., and Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C. "I'm thoroughly convinced he will do a great job," said. Sen. Faircloth.
Rep. Ballenger, who pushed a comprehensive OSHA reform bill in the last Congress, noted that while he has often disagreed with Mr. Jeffress, the North Carolina OSHA chief "doesn't view employers and business as adversaries" and has proved himself "willing to try new approaches" to achieving safer workplaces.
During his testimony before the committee, Mr. Jeffress emphasized his commitment to using education as a means of increasing workplace safety.
"We've saved more lives through education than we could with enforcement alone," he said. He pointed to an initiative with the logging industry as an example of how this approach worked.
In 1993, the state labor department joined forces with the North Carolina Forestry Assn. in an effort to reduce fatalities among loggers. This wasn't easy, for loggers generally are small operations, often consisting of family members, and work in remote areas, he said.
The joint effort featured mailings to loggers and their families, consultation, safety workshops and enforcement visits, he said. In addition, the department of labor contacted loggers' customers and asked that they give preference to those loggers who had participated in the program. He credited the program with helping to reduce the number of fatalities among loggers to three from 13 in a one-year period.
"We must focus our compliance resources where they are most needed," said Mr. Jeffress.
In North Carolina, that meant targeting 134 employers with unusually high rates of workers compensation claims. Those sites were inspected, and employers that asked for it got help developing safety and health programs, Mr. Jeffress said. The targeting program resulted in a significant drop in workers comp claims for those employers, he said.
Mr. Jeffress avoided direct answers to questions about the new Safety Advancement for Employees Act, S. 1237, introduced recently by a bipartisan group of lawmakers (BI, Oct. 6). Among other things, the bill calls for a system whereby employers would be able to contract with third-party auditors to conduct compliance inspections. Employers then could correct safety problems and avoid OSHA citations for two years.
Mr. Jeffress said he had considered doing something similar in North Carolina but found that the overwhelming majority of employers surveyed-88%-said they would prefer waiting six months to receive a free visit from state OSHA workplace consultants than pay for an outside audit. He said he would like to find a way to use private consultants in the workplace but that he retains reservations about doing so.
On another contentious issue, the setting of an ergonomics standard, Mr. Jeffress said, "We've found it's not one size fits all" in dealing with ergonomics questions. He said ergonomics requirements would have to be tailored to workplaces. He added that dealing with ergonomic maladies requires management commitment to alleviating the problem and a willingness of employees to speak up when they are suffering ergonomic-related injuries before the injuries become too severe.
In general, a "positive safety culture" with management commitment is crucial in creating safe workplaces, Mr. Jeffress told the committee.
After Mr. Jeffress concluded his testimony, the committee's chairman, Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., said he could look forward to swift action on his nomination.
"Please go away relaxed," the senator told him.