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Bill proposes safety checks by third parties

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by Bryan Smith

SBJ Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON Ð Rep. Jim Talent knew the federal government needed to make some changes when he noticed OSHA did not have enough people to inspect the nation's job sites.

The Missouri Republican was especially frustrated to see the problem with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was at its worst in the area he represents around St. Louis.

"In my home state of Missouri, workers and employers will not see an OSHA inspector but once every 339 years, on average," Talent said. "This ineffective and adversarial posture has had deadly results. By making fines rather than compliance its objective, OSHA allows serious safety concerns to go uninspected."

As a result, this spring Talent introduced the Safety and Advancement for Employees Act.

The legislation primarily would require OSHA to establish a program to allow employers, especially small-business owners, to have their business sites checked by a third party.

According to Talent, this would allow the government to focus on employers who repeatedly violate regulations.

The government agency, however, will not support the measure.

"While OSHA appreciates the chairman's attempts to improve this bill, those attempts have not overcome OSHA's opposition to the SAFE Act," said Charles Jeffress, the U.S. Department of Labor's assistant secretary for occupational safety and health.

Small-business organizations are supporting the third-party inspections.

"This added benefit removes some of the burden of inspections and places more active responsibility of safety upon the employer," said Todd McCracken, president of National Small Business United, in a letter to Talent. "Considering OSHA is already so overburdened, third-party inspections allow the agency to focus intently on flagrant offenders."

"OSHA is failing to protect American workers," Talent said. "With the billions of dollars spent by OSHA since its creation in 1970, you'd think the rate of worker injuries and death should be significantly lower and that OSHA could inspect current workplaces more frequently than once every 167 years."

Jeffress said the number of injuries, specifically in the area of goods and services, is declining, even reaching record lows.

"For the fifth consecutive year, the rate of injuries and illness has declined," he said. "In fact, the rate for 1997 was the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting this information in the early 1970s. The improvement is particularly impressive in a booming economy when many new and inexperienced workers are coming into the work force."

An executive summary from Talent's office describing the role of third party auditors said OSHA inspectors had no ability to sympathize with employers.

"OSHA inspectors cannot possibly understand the safety and health concerns of work sites that they rarely visit," the summary said. "Nor can they have knowledge of workers' needs in industries as diverse as manufacturing plants, funeral homes and restaurants."

Third-party consultants would conduct investigations at work sites and report the results to the government.

According to Talent's office, this would allow OSHA to concentrate on employers who consistently violate the agency's codes.

"The SAFE Act's third-party consultation provision will help a large majority of employers obtain regulatory compliance without forcing them to rely on OSHA, which is unable to meet employers' needs," Talent said.

But in March congressional testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training, Jeffress said OSHA could not support the bill even after changes were made.

"Last year, (OSHA) stated that the secretary would recommend a veto if the SAFE Act passed the Congress," Jeffress said. "Despite the changes that have been made since then, we believe the new SAFE Act, if enacted, would undermine the agency's ability to protect workers. Consequently, if (the bill) were passed, as drafted, the secretary again would be forced to recommend a veto."

Talent said opposition, especially from organized labor, "is based on serious misinformation about what the bill contains," Talent said. "The AFL-CIO has worked (with a Senate sponsor of a similar bill) for months and frankly, it must know that many of the statements that it makes are either distorted or dead wrong."

OSHA hopes it can resolve problems with the bill by finding solutions that it and bill presenters can agree on. Jeffress said third-party consultants is not an issue his agency can compromise on.[[In-content Ad]]

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