The huge grand concourse was strangely quiet and nearly empty. Walking through Washington's Union Station on Wednesday, November 15, at 7:15 a.m., it seemed like a Sunday morning. Across the front page of The Washington Post ran the headline: "Workers Go Home; Talks Go Nowhere." A phone call to OSHA's Office of Public Information triggered this taped message: "The government has been shut down due to a lack of funding, and OSHA will not reopen for business until the funding impasse has been resolved." On Tuesday, the first day of the shutdown, OSHA administrator Joe Dear had a friend drop him off for a speech across the Potomac River in Pentagon City, Virginia. As he left the meeting, several attendees in the back of the room pulled out change and offered to pay his cab fare home.

It's been that kind of year for Dear, who often seems to be on his own without much support. The federal government's partial work stoppage (OSHA still handled emergencies) epitomized the state of OSHA affairs: frustrating, disappointing, and strange.

How strange? Labor unions, OSHA's traditional supporters, end the year very agitated with the agency. And this is with democrats running the show. In October, the presidents of the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers of America, and the International Association of Machinists sent a letter to Labor Secretary Robert Reich to express their concerns "about the overall tone of the OSHA reinvention initiatives." The unions fear the agency is selling its soul to stave off Republican attacks.

Uneasy allies: In early November their fears were heightened when the agency released its enforcement data for fiscal year 1995, ending September 30. Total inspections dropped 31 percent, from 42,377 to 29,113. The number of serious violations declined 41 percent. "If OSHA doesn't see itself primarily as a regulatory and enforcement agency then there is a split between labor and the Clinton administration bigger than I thought," says the AFL-CIO's Director of Safety and Health, Peg Seminario.

Meanwhile, OSHA's most influential defenders have turned out to be Republicans-moderates such as Rep. John Porter and Sen. Arlen Specter who control the agency's funding. They have managed to take some of the steam out of their brethren's more radical efforts to defang the agency.

How frustrating has the year been? "I can't tell you how difficult this is," says an OSHA official. "We're trying to find the fine line. The unions want more enforcement, employers want more partnerships, and never the twain shall meet."

Adding to tensions is the fact that many important issues drag on without resolution. At press time, OSHA budget for fiscal year 1996 was unknown. The House of Representatives wants to cut it 15.5 percent, with a 33 percent reduction in enforcement spending. The Senate proposes a more moderate 5 percent decrease. Once the difference is reconciled (conventional wisdom anticipates a 10 percent cut), the president still might veto the whole federal budget package.

Then there is OSHA reform legislation. Rep. Cass Ballenger's bill has been hung up for months. Egged on by fiery young Republicans representing small business and southern attitudes, Ballenger wants to rein in OSHA enforcement, eliminate the use of the general duty clause, and limit most penalties. His bill should sail through the House, but the protracted budget debate has prevented it coming to the floor for a vote. It now looks like the vote won't come before 1996.

The same can be said for several major safety and health standards. It will probably take years for the agency to dig out from the avalanche of public comments it received in response to its indoor air quality proposal. And after proudly releasing a draft ergonomics standard in March, agency officials now only speak of it in whispers. Afraid to offend powerful critics of the standard, the agency isn't saying anything about future plans until Congress decides whether to allow work on an ergo rule in 1996. The House budget bill specifically says money cannot be spent on it; the Senate version has no restrictions.

If OSHA is allowed to proceed, one source with close ties to the agency expects a slimmed-down proposal, perhaps focusing only on select types of ergonomic hazards, to come out in the spring of '96. "The feeling is (OSHA) has to do something for organized labor, and labor wants this," says the source. Still, ergonomics is another issue very much up in the air at the moment.

OSHA reinvention is also ending the year with uncertainty. In May, President Clinton and Vice President Gore unveiled plans for a "new" OSHA that would shift from nitpicking to problem-solving. But by November, one of the agency's most heralded problem-solving ventures, a partnership with poultry companies in Georgia to ferret out long-standing hazards, was on hold. Meetings with the Poultry Industry Steering Committee were suspended after officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers union balked at a tentative agreement to exempt "partnering" companies from routine inspections.

Several OSHA officials say the union outburst has chilled enthusiasm for partnerships in other area offices. "No one wants to do anything now," says one official.

In response, the agency is drafting "operating principles" for problem-solving. Two key elements: Notify national unions before proceeding; and offer no inspection exemptions.

The outlook

Will 1996 be any less confusing and indecisive of a year? Once the budget is finalized, OSHA's course will be easier for safety and health professionals to discern. Dear and company will be able to commit resources, and the ergonomics standard will either go forward or be shelved.

Also bringing some order to the agency's agenda will be a priority list, scheduled for release in December. It will offer recommendations for 18 action items, although only a handful will involve new standards. The need for safety and health program management requirements will be played up, and there is talk of a proposal coming out next spring. A proposal to revise, and hopefully simplify, recordkeeping requirements will probably be published before then.

So don't be surprised if OSHA shows a burst of energy. By December, Dear says inspectors should receive new policies for evaluating safety programs, focused inspections in specific industry sectors, and penalty negotiations. Funding permitting, OSHA will keep trying to reinvent itself, learning lessons as it goes along. Targeted inspection programs like the Maine 200 effort will spread to more states. Five area offices each quarter will undergo weeks of training to find local safety and health hazards that can be attacked through education and enforcement.

Look for tough talk about enforcement, and some big penalties. Unions have heard enough about cooperating with employers, plus OSHA must show that it still means business after the drop in inspections. "We'll have to continue to walk the fine line. Bang the bad actors and build partnerships," says an agency official.