Do you think Charles Jeffress is learning the ways of Washington, or what? First, he waits months for the White House to get around to nominating him for the top OSHA job. Then exactly one week before his confirmation hearing in the Senate, a group of House and Senate Republicans holds a press conference to unveil their latest legislative proposal to "reform" OSHA. Finally, as his hearing begins, Jeffress finds himself being introduced by two Republicans-Senator Lauch Faircloth and Congressman Cass Ballenger from his home state of North Carolina.

"I'm thoroughly convinced he'll do a great job," says Faircloth. Keep in mind this is a conservative southern Republican talking about a Democratic nominee to run OSHA.

"I've known Charles for more than 20 years. He'll do a good job," says Ballenger. The congressman allows that he was "a little bit bothered" that Jeffress came to Washington earlier as head of North Carolina's OSHA program to testify against the hotly debated "Ballenger bill" to reform OSHA. But there are no hard feelings. Ballenger jokes that his kind words for Jeffress will be the "kiss of death for Charles."

Jeffress also wasted little time making page one of the Wall Street Journal. The morning of his confirmation hearing in early October, the paper reported that the OSHA nominee was expected to tell senators he opposed the latest GOP proposal to change the agency's ways.

Gentle jousting

Jeffress did that, and yet again he didn't, in a diplomatic style that impressed seasoned OSHA watchers among the crowd of about 80 attendees at the hearing. "How did he do?" a friend from North Carolina asked a Labor Department official at the end of the 75-minute hearing. "Fantastic, fantastic," he replied. Most telling were the exchanges between Jeffress and Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi, who has determinedly pursued the idea of OSHA reform since being elected to the Senate in 1996.

"He's like the Energizer Bunny, he never stops," says a union safety official who opposes Enzi's latest effort, the Safety Advancement for Employees Act (SAFE). The bill would allow private consultants to certify compliance, require the National Academy of Sciences to review OSHA standards before becoming law, and permit inspectors to penalize employees who willfully violate OSHA standards. (See page 8 for more details).

Enzi asked Jeffress what he thought of using "third-party" consultants to augment OSHA's meager inspection resources, while reminding him that the idea was first recommended by Vice President Gore in his report on reinventing the federal government. Jeffress turned to market research, of all things. He said that 88 percent of employers surveyed in North Carolina did not want to pay for a private consultant's visit, preferring the free consultation services of the state OSHA program.

"We must find some motivation to address the cost issue," said Jeffress. "Most businesses are not aware of the cost of private consultants."

Enzi's solution is to offer two-year exemptions for using an outside contractor and following up on their recommendations. But as with most of the issues raised at Jeffress's hearing, the give-and-take did not delve into details. Instead, Jeffress would say, "I look forward to working with you on that, Senator." To which the Senator would reply, "I appreciate your offer to sit down with me later." Then it would be on to the next topic.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote in his memoir, "Locked in the Cabinet," that confirmation hearings are all about showing respect. Jeffress proved to be a quick study, and the hearing was cordial, filled with compliments and gentle jabbing.

Still, some observers were impressed that Jeffress did not completely dodge questions. Enzi asked about fining employees for a violation like not wearing a hard hat after receiving training. "I'd hate to see OSHA issue traffic citations to every employee, Senator. It would create alot more bureaucracy than either of us wants," replied Jeffress. "The best discipline comes from employers."

What about ergonomics?

Senator Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, asked how OSHA should handle ergonomic problems in the workplace. "We need to address them, Senator," said Jeffress, who went on to describe the "ergonomic resource centers" that were set up in North Carolina to help employers. State inspectors cite ergonomic hazards using the general duty clause if employers don't want to "partner" with the state to solve problems.

As for writing an ergonomics standard, Jeffress said "I don't know how we'll do that. I'll work with everyone who's interested." He did say his experience with North Carolina OSHA taught him that a "prescriptive, one-size-fits-all" approach doesn't work. What's needed, he said, are committed managers, involved employees who report problems before they become too painful, and a competent analysis of each job and every motion-with every part of a program tailored to the specific workplace.

One long-time OSHA watcher said after the hearing that Jeffress came across as knowing more about running a government safety and health program than anyone who's ever been nominated for the OSHA job. Indeed, during his testimony Jeffress discussed logging hazards and the need for protective chaps; farm safety; using the general duty clause to cite ergonomic hazards; using workers' compensation data to target inspections; the reason why using only the number of comp claims for targeting is not a good idea; the importance of continuing education for inspectors; and the powerful effect of a "positive safety culture."

"You've done very well," said Labor Committee Chairman Senator Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.) at the end of the hearing "Please, go away relaxed."

That's probably good advice. Jeffress is expected to be confirmed without any trouble. Then the questions will become more pointed. "He'll probably never be as confident about things as he is right now," says a former OSHA official.