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WASHINGTON-Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman will urge President Clinton to veto a workplace safety reform bill if it reaches his desk without significant changes.
Among Ms. Herman's chief concerns with the measure is a provision that would empower third-party safety auditors to review worksites in place of inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee gave its approval to the Safety Advancement for Employees Act, S. 1237, on a 10-8 party-line vote last week. Democratic attempts to amend the measure, unveiled less than a month before the vote, were unsuccessful. Those amendments failed to garner a single Republican vote as the measure's chief author, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., spelled out his objections to each one. Sen. Enzi himself offered a single amendment incorporating a number of mostly technical changes that was adopted by voice vote.
After approving the SAFE Act, the committee also gave unanimous approval to the nomination of Charles Jeffress, head of North Carolina's workplace safety program, to become the new U.S. assistant secretary of labor in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (BI, Oct. 13). Mr. Jeffress' nomination was one of seven nominations approved en masse by the committee without discussion or dissension on a voice vote.
Despite the nomination action, the committee's focus clearly was on the OSHA reform bill. As approved by the committee, the SAFE Act would, among other things:
Allow employers to contract with third-party auditors "qualified" by the Labor Department to assess the employer's compliance with OSHA regulations.
Employers that choose to use third-party auditors would be exempt from any 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 for safety violations.
Mandate that safety standards be submitted to the National Academy of Sciences for review before being issued.
Establish continuing education requirements for OSHA inspectors.
Require that 15% of OSHA's annual appropriations be used for education, consultation and outreach programs.
Make employees responsible, and therefore subject to fine, when their actions jeopardize workplace safety if their employer has complied with safety and health regulations. This controversial provision drew heated criticism from Democratic members of the committee who said it is unfair to penalize workers.
Codify current OSHA administrative policy that bans setting quotas for OSHA employees in regard to the number of inspections carried out, citations issued or penalties collected.
Provide an "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 violation 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.
During the sometimes contentious committee meeting before the vote, Democratic members led by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., repeatedly complained that the measure had not been adequately scrutinized and deliberated because there had been no hearings on the bill.
"It's inappropriate to consider" the bill, said Sen. Wellstone. "I want to make it real clear that S. 1237 as presented cannot become law," he said.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., replied that the measure had been crafted out of previous bills, notably one offered by Sen. Enzi and another by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., that had been the subject of numerous hearings. Sen. Gregg, in fact, accused Sen. Wellstone of engaging in "hyperbole and misrepresentation."
"The purpose of this bill is to advance safety," said Sen. Gregg.
The Democratic members of the committee, however, circulated a letter from the Labor Secretary to the committee's chairman, Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., in which Ms. Herman wrote, "In our view, S. 1237 could present unacceptable dangers to the health and safety of American workers."
After detailing a series of concerns about the bill, Ms. Herman wrote that "if S. 1237 is passed by the Congress and presented to the president, I will recommend that he veto the legislation."
One of the secretary's chief concerns was what she termed the "defective third-party certification program," which also was the target of several Democratic senators' complaints about the bill.
While the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. and other business groups support the bill, the third-party audit provision as written is not universally supported by businesses and insurers, a point Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., made in criticizing the proposal.
The provision "effectively immunizes employers from penalties," said Sen. Kennedy.
He added that some surveys of corporate safety officials have indicated they would rather depend on themselves rather than outsiders to promote safety, and he said he would like to hear from those safety officials before progressing.
Third-party auditors are "going to be hired and paid for by
the employer. How many times are they going to be hired and paid for by the employer if they find many health and safety problems? Very few," said Sen. Kennedy.
No date has been set for the full Senate to discuss the matter.