Simply put, the Occupational Safety and Health administration (OSHA) gets no respect.
On one side are those who fault the agency for failing to protect the health and safety of workers; on the other side, business and industry representatives are accusing OSHA of going overboard on nitpicking standards that add nothing to the workplace except costs.
During the Reagan and Bush administrations, OSHA received little attention. Although President Clin-ton's budget has no special relief for beleaguered OSHA staffers, at least the agency now receives official backing.
Secretary of Labor Robert Reich promised to reinvigorate OSHA's workplace safety enforcement program, taking aim at businesses that employ the most vulnerable members of the workforce - the young, the old and the lowest-paid wage-earners of the workforce.
To make good on this promise, the Clinton Administration pledged to support a renewed effort to comprehensively reform OSHA. The effort, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), is a measure that effectively revives a bill that stalled in 1992 when it drew no Republican support.
"In a highly competitive global economy, we cannot tolerate the high costs of workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses," Reich told Kennedy and Ford in a letter late last year.
The proposed legislation would significantly change and update the law. No significant changes have been made to OSHA since 1970, when the agency was created. Companies would be required to establish safety and health programs, including training and education plans. Employers with more than 10 full-time workers would have to set up safety and health committees comprised of employees and management.
Significantly, the bill would expand OSHA coverage to public employees who are now excluded and also to workers in nuclear plants.
The bill also would increase criminal penalties for "willful violations" of OSHA that result in death and would criminalize willful violations that cause injuries. In addition, the measure would require OSHA to update exposure limits on toxic substances and review the limits at three-year intervals.
Finally, the bill would establish an office of construction safety with OSHA, mandate the coordination of safety plans among contractors or multi-employer sites and force contractors to devise health and safety plans for certain kinds of projects.
"There is an enormous amount of preventable injury and death in the workplace," OSHA's new Chief, Joseph Dear, told The New York Times. "It produces pain and suffering and huge economic costs. "Reform legislation would give the authority to adopt on a national basis proven means of preventing worker injury and death."
Coincidentally, the bill reflects many of Secretary Reich's deep-seated beliefs. Safety and health committees exemplify the kind of labor-management cooperation that he thinks is essential to re-store U.S. productivity and competitiveness.
Early in the Clinton Administration, the business community believed it would achieve a negotiated solution to OSHA revisions, according to a spokesperson for the Labor Policy Association, Washington, D.C. The Kennedy-Ford bill abandoned this approach and incorporated "none of our concerns," the spokesperson said.
Business groups see only a multi-billion dollar price tag on the Kennedy-Ford proposals. They are particularly disturbed by the bill's definition of significant risk as "an extremely stringent numerical standard" that limits the agency's ability to fashion its own standards for exposure to hazardous materials, according to a Labor Policy Association report.
The proposed legislation has the potential to bring OSHA the respect that it has been lacking for years.