In the bunker: OSHA's frustrations mount

May 18, 2000
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Did you see the national press reports on OSHA in mid-June? The Washington Post wrote: "OSHA abandons" its attempt at an ergonomics rule. "Administration backs away," was the Wall Street Journal's description.

"Administration balks" at a repetitive strain standard, said the New York Times.

OSHA officials certainly noticed, with pent-up frustration. The whole story on the ergonomics standard- really a 144-word statement issued by an agency official to the National Repetitive Strain Injury Foundation- was not getting out, they argued. OSHA Chief Joe Dear stated it was not now possible to publish a standard, given "Congressional intervention." The statement went on to say that OSHA would continue its work on the draft proposal, but the press played up the idea of OSHA bowing to business and Republican pressure. Three days later, the Times ran a correction saying some of its earlier editions incompletely described OSHA's position.

But a one-paragraph correction is not going to change perceptions such as these, gathered from Industrial Safety & Hygiene News interviews:

"I don't like what I'm hearing," says a safety manager in Florida. "OSHA's being beat to hell. It could become a toothless tiger."

"The OSHA administration is in disarray," says another safety pro in Iowa.

"Opponents of OSHA are licking their chops, saying, 'What do we go for next?', says a Washington lobbyist. "OSHA's running so scared they won't do anything to upset anyone."

OSHA officials know full well the damage that has been done. "Big business has declared victory and thinks we have packed our tent and gone home," acknowledges one agency source.

The credibility problem facing the agency goes beyond the handling of the ergonomics standard. Since the beginning of the year OSHA, the "poster child" for regulatory relief, has taken one hit after another. Press reports make the agency look whipped. The lead Republican OSHA reform bill, which strips the agency of much of its enforcement power, is introduced days after the flap over ergonomics. In the same week, Dear gets bashed at a small business conference.

Meanwhile, GOP budget proposals are on the table calling for OSHA's funding to be cut anywhere from one-fifth to one-half. Various risk assessment bills would thwart standards-setting plans. And Republicans in both the House and the Senate held hearings in late June to again bring up a litany of OSHA horror stories from outraged business owners.

Hard choices

How much can OSHA officials take before they vent some outrage themselves? The problem is, the last thing the agency can afford with so much at stake, and really so little leverage at the moment, is to engage its powerful critics on Capitol Hill and in business circles in pitched battle.

But if OSHA continues to take shots without making some kind of stand, it risks "slipping away altogether," as one former agency manager says. As it is now, the Florida safety manager says he attends professional meetings and hears very little talk about OSHA. It's like it's off by itself in a corner, he says.

OSHA's in a bind. And right now the agency's brain trust is trying to figure out what to do about it. Their task is tricky and delicate. The atmosphere is so politically charged, and OSHA is such an easy target for those frustrated by Washington's ways, that retribution comes quick if the wrong thing is said.

That's what happened in March when OSHA's ergonomic task force leader Barbara Silverstein said a regulatory freeze would not stop work on the ergonomics standard. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), taking Silverstein's words as a challenge, responded by proposing to cut $3.5 million from OSHA's budget to bankrupt the rulemaking effort. Angry business groups lobbied Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to write legislation that would specifically stop any ergonomics work.

The storm passed, but left its mark. OSHA must move cautiously. That doesn't come easy for some agency officials, like the hard-driving and outspoken Silverstein. Not surprisingly, her last day on the job came in early June. Says one friend: "Disappointment is the nicest way to describe her frustration with the political process. She was incredulous."

So now it's decision time at OSHA. "Do we fight for what we believe, or do we try not to tick anyone off, which isn't possible anyway," explains one agency source. "We do want to be more cooperative and user friendly, but we do have a responsibility to workers."

There's the whole range of attitudes among the agency's decision makers, from risk-averse to damn-the-torpedoes. In the middle sits agency chief Dear. Right now he's in the unusual position of being a Democratic appointee who has more friends among Republicans than in organized labor. Republicans see him as a well-meaning moderate, labor thinks he's a weakling who won't push for standards.

A possible strategy

One agency source believes OSHA, led by Dear, can cooperate with business and be responsible to labor. Here's how that might be done in the coming months:

  • On ergonomics, look for OSHA to show that it's not throwing in the towel. Jennifer Silk, who shepherded through the hazard communication standard in the 1980s, is rumored to replace Silverstein on the ergonomics project. The agency is also likely to announce that it's moving ahead‹with industry input every step of the way‹on a slimmed-down standard that will focus on repetitive strain problems in industries where ergonomics programs have met with success. Nothing will probably be proposed in the next year, though.

  • The gloves will come off in response to the Ballenger OSHA reform bill. A press release issued by the Department of Labor the day the bill was introduced said it would "gut" OSHA. "This is not reform, this is retreat," said Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

  • Dear and his aides will continue to work Capitol Hill feverishly to fight against drastic budget cuts. Give him credit, says one observer, he'll meet with anybody.

Health and safety professionals wonder how long Dear can take the heat, but agency sources say his drive to protect OSHA is not wilting. "He's a no-nonsense guy who knows you can't have thin skin in this business," says one aide.

  • The plan to "reinvent" OSHA will be pushed to show that the agency is serious about change. Area offices in Savannah, Ga.; Columbus, Ohio; St. Louis; Kansas City; and Wichita are now being schooled by members of a "redesign team" in everything from the new complaint-handling process to how to collect local injury and accident data to set problem-solving priorities.

"We need to build a critical mass of ten to twelve new offices," says one aide. "Then the others won't want to be left out."

  • Standards-setting is likely to focus on ergonomics, the already proposed respiratory protection rule, revised recordkeeping rules, and general requirements for health and safety programs.

The respiratory rule is fairly innocuous, say observers. Recordkeeping revisions can be sold as a de-regulatory paperwork reduction exercise. Broad health and safety program mandates will be a tough sell, though, with nothing formally introduced probably until after next year's election.

It's the next six months that are critical to OSHA's credibility. If there's no action or sense of purpose, industry is likely to write off the agency until 1997.

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