Supporters call it "reform," but in fact the proposed changes to the Occupational Safety and Health Act are nothing new, nothing innovative, nothing progressive.
Rather, the Comprehensive Occupational Safety and Health Reform Act now pending before both houses of Congress is a double dose of the same old "bash-the-employer" approach typical of organized labor and its friends on Capitol Hill.It consists of all the old bromides - unworkable mandates, stiff penalties, one-size-fits-all prescriptions, myriad rules and regulations, and unchecked bureaucratic power for the Department of Labor.
COSHRA, as the "reform" package is known, is touted by its authors and organized labor as the answer to what they claim is an increasingly dangerous situation in America's workplaces.
What American business needs to further improve safety and health is more information, assistance, better training and incentives to use as the unique circumstances of each business warrant.
That is, if anything is needed. Workplace injuries and illnesses actually are decreasing.
Workplace fatalities in 1992 hit their lowest level since 1912, and the number of accidents or injuries causing time lost from work declined. Ironically, one-third of all work-related fatalities are the result of vehicle mishaps or homicide. No federal occupational safety and health legislation will correct either of these problems.
Even if a business owner or manager is so heartless, callous or shortsighted as to disregard employee health and safety either intentionally or negligently, there is a powerful incentive to pay prompt and continuous attention to workplace health and safety.
Every employer faces the ever-present possibility, indeed likelihood, that OSHA, or its state counterpart, will conduct an inspection. Equipment, procedures, records and processes will be checked, and those that do not conform to OSHA's voluminous regulations will be cited, resulting in possible large fines for the employer. Under present law, fines for violations can be up to $7,000 each.
COSHRA calls for increased penalties, prohibits companies from paying fines charged to individual managers and supervisors, lowers the threshold for determining that an airborne substance is dangerous to an unrealistic one part per million, and absolves OSHA of responsibility to determine feasibility of proposed rules and analyze them on a cost-benefit basis.
The proposed legislation mandates that every employer adopt a detailed health and safety plan prescribed by the government and it rigidly requires every workplace of more than 10 employees to have a labor-management committee with broad independent powers and responsibilities - the union organizers' dream come true.
Rather than brandishing a big club, OSHA should arm itself with educational materials - books, manuals, videotapes - that workers and supervisors could study and keep handy.
OSHA should offer incentives to employers who demonstrate achievements in improving workplace health and safety. The agency ought to show employers how to maintain low rates of lost time injuries and illnesses.
OSHA reformers cannot hope to improve workplace safety significantly unless they also enable employers to prevent substance abuse in the workplace.
This is the kind of "reform" the business community could really use.