Congress aims ire at agency for job safety

The controversial Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may soon have its control over worker safety and health protection slashed by an increasingly conservative US Congress.

Congress, angered at what it feels is excessive regulation by the watchdog Federal Trade Commission (FTC), is close to enacting final legislation that could seriously cut back the scope and authority of that agency if not vetoed by the President. Now, lawmakers are turning their attention to the similar question of whether OSHA also needs its powers clipped.

Critics insist the agency -- set up in 1971 to oversee health and safety requirements for workers in plants and offices -- has become overly zealous to the financial detriment of employers. Proponents of the beleaguered agency argue that business groups, riding a conservative political tide, want to weaken federal health and safety inspections.

At issue is a bill introduced in the Senate entitled the Occupational Safety & Health Improvements Act of 1980 that would sharply cut back the scope of OSHA.

Significantly, the bill, introduced by Pennsylvania Republican Richard S. Schweiker, is snapping up solid support. In fact, the bill has already garnered the backing of two influential Democrats, Harrison A. Williams Jr. of New Jersey , chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, and alan Cranston of California, Senate majority whip.

Both men are stalwart supporters of big labor, both are liberals, and both -- up to this juncture -- have been considered strong supporters of federal supervision over workplace safety.

The issue, argues Senator Schweiker, who retires next year after serving six terms in the House and Senate, is that the agency has produced "hundreds and hundreds" of "Mickey Mouse regulations" instead of going after genuine accident and health problems.

The Labor and Human Resources Committee will hold hearings on the legislation in mid-March, and again in april. Committee sources say the bill has a solid chance of being enacted by the Senate and eventually being approved by the House later this year. A similar bill has been introduced on the House side, although hearing are not yet planned on that version.

Currently, the 3,000-person federal agency monitors health and safety protection requirements at 5 million "workplaces" around the US for over 65 million workers.

The Carter administration recently proposed OSHA's fiscal 1981 budget be increased to around $212 million, up from $183 million for fiscal 1980. That adds up to over a 15 percent increase in a budget originally billed by the administration as "tight." Whether that proposed increase will be reduced under the current administration anti-inflationary effort to trim the budget, however, is not known.

The legislation would basically do three things:

1. Sharply cut back by 90 percent or so the number of workplaces to be inspected by the agency.

2. Form joint labor-management committees to oversee work safety and health requirements.

3. Reduce or scrap federal penalties for noncompliance and provide "incentives" for greater private sector surveillance.

Labor is already working hard to defeat the legislation. But with liberals like Senators Williams and Cranston (and Idaho Democrat Frank Church) supporting the bill, they are conceding that there may not be all that much they can do.

According to AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, OSHA is sound legislation that should be strengthened rather than weakened.

Labor groups are specifically concerned by the "determination" method that would be used to identify the 10 percent or so of all workplaces that would remain under OSHA inspection procedures. To determine where injuries occur most often, OSHA would be required to use statistical data obtained from workers compensation reports and from affidavits filed by employers stating their injury rates.

But this, labor officials argue, would add up to inspection "after the fact," rather than the current method of "surprise" inspections aimed at entire industries with high accident rates.

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