Special Topics in Safety Management

Is OSHA Coming Back to Life?

OSHA has been relatively dormant under 8 years of a Republican in the White House. Now all that may change … and if it happens, it starts in Iowa tonight. Here’s what safety professionals should look for in the election year to come.

Will you be watching the big game on TV tonight?

No, not football’s Orange Bowl. The other big game. The one that starts with the Iowa caucuses this evening and ends on November 4, with the election of a new American president.

With no incumbent to be reelected, and no vice-presidential heir apparent, the race is wideopen in both the Republican and Democratic parties. After 8 years of the Bush administration, odds-makers favor the Democrats. But one thing is certain: the outcome, whatever it is, will affect your job as a safety or EHS professional.

Under President Bush, OSHA and other regulatory agencies have been largely dormant in recent years, as compared to their prior activity. Regulatory action has been slow and largely pro-business, and steps were even taken to reverse previous actions.

One example was the Clinton Administration’s regulations on workplace ergonomics, which the business community complained would saddle them with billions in costs. With the backing of a Republican Congress, the current administration was able to repeal the rule and replace it with a voluntary standard.

Democrats committed to change OSHA

Now, all three major Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, and John Edwards, as well as most second-tier campaigners, have committed to passing a new version of that rule, according to the political website, TheHill.com. “As president,” I will make the [proposed ergonomics act] law,” says Edwards. “George Bush’s voluntary guidelines have left workers exposed.”

Delaware’s Senator Joe Biden also supports the ergonomics initiative, and also states that “I am a proud co-sponsor of the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which expands OSHA protection and penalties for violators, and increases protection for whistleblowers. We need new inspectors to go in and make sure [employers] are abiding by the existing law,” Biden has said.

A Democratic win would likely also result in a major restructuring of OSHA leadership.

Edwards has promised to install a “worker’s advocate” in the agency’s head office. While New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson promises to appoint a union member as head of OSHA. “My first day as president, I will get rid of all the union-busting lawyers at the Department of Labor and OSHA,” Richardson declares.

And action could occur that first day. Although regulations already in force can only be changed through a rulemaking process, those moving toward enactment can be stopped in their tracks by a new administration. “Within hours of taking office,” reports The New York Times, “Mr. Bush slammed the brakes on scores of regulations issued just before he could take office so he could review them.” About 20 percent did not survive the review.

Republicans may accelerate rulemaking

For this reason, the current administration, prodded by allied lobbying groups, is hurrying to finalize pro-business regulations, with some, such as one allowing truckers to spend extra hours on the road, affecting safety. As the year progresses, rulemaking may be dramatically accelerated. And come January 20, 2009, all bets are off. You’ll want to rely on Safety Daily Advisor to keep up.

And it all begins tonight. The teams have taken the field, and kickoff is 7 p.m., Iowa time.