Right out of the gate, 1996 got off to a slow start in Washington. The month-long government shutdown followed by a blizzard gave new meaning to gridlock. It doesn't bode well for an action-packed year. Congress will only be in session for 85 days as it is, thanks to presidential primaries, national conventions, and the fall elections.

Actually, this is good news for OSHA. Ever since the GOP "revolution" of November, 1994, regulators have been "walking on eggshells every day," in the words of one OSHA official. They could use some regulatory relief of their own. One slip of the tongue, like Barbara Silverstein talking too boldly about the ergonomics standard last year, gets a knuckle-rapping $3.5 million budget cut.

Even if Republicans are distracted by budget battles and primaries, veteran OSHA-watchers know presidential election years are not kind to the agency. With the White House hanging in the balance, no one wants to burden business with new regulations. The Office of Management and Budget and the Labor Department's front office will see to that.

"I'd be astonished to see a safety and health program management proposal published," says a former agency official, referring to OSHA's grand plan to set basic requirements for how to run programs. "Politically, it's hard to see (Labor Secretary) Reich and OMB giving approval."

No dough

As if politics isn't enough, other factors will slow OSHA activity. There just isn't the money to do much, for one thing. At press time in late January, OSHA was operating with a 15.5 percent budget cut. The funding level for the rest of the year was still in doubt, since a final budget had not been approved. Plus, the lengthy shutdown has the agency playing catch-up. "A lot of things have fallen by the wayside. We're 2,000 inspections behind," says special assistant Cheryl Byrne. "Everything is off schedule." Inspections will have to be prioritized, some scheduled audits might never happen, and the regulatory calendar will be revised, she says.

When OSHA staffers finally came back to their desks after the work stoppage and blizzard, they were in surprisingly good spirits, according to one source. "Morale is much better than I thought it would be," says the source. "I think people know that we're in for the political fight of our lives, and to survive we have to fight our way out of it."

New players

New blood in OSHA's management team should add some pop. In mid-January, Michael G. Connors, OSHA's regional administrator in the Chicago area, replaced Jim Stanley as the agency's top enforcement official. Connors becomes deputy administrator, reporting directly to OSHA chief Joe Dear. Sources who know Connors say he is an aggressive yet fair enforcer of job safety laws. Last year, his six-state midwest region led all OSHA regions in total inspections conducted, yet was in the middle of the pack in terms of percentage of cases contested by employers. This reflects his sensible approach to compliance, sources say.

"If you're willing to abate (cited hazards), then he'll negotiate," says Dennis Morikawa, an attorney who handles OSHA cases for Morgan, Lewis, Bockius in Philadelphia.

Connors is also an important player in Dear's efforts to "reinvent" OSHA, serving on the agency's redesign team. His region leads the country in number of area offices to have gone through training in problem-solving and partnerships, part of the plan to make OSHA more helpful to employers. Byrne says Connors embodies the balance between enforcement and reinvention that the agency seeks. Now he'll try to strike the right mix nationally. Compliance officers in the field should be receptive; Connors is said to have a good reputation with the troops.

Another new face in OSHA's front office is John Moran, who replaces Michael Silverstein as director of policy. Moran is no stranger to OSHA, though, having served on the agency's construction advisory committee. A former NIOSH official with ties to organized labor, Moran is a hard-working straight-shooter who will let his views be known, according to sources. He should definitely add some spice.

The question is, what will Dear's new team be able to accomplish in the months left before the November elections? Agency officials didn't like the drop in inspections last year to record-low levels, but it will be tough to crank up the numbers without arousing the GOP majority on Capitol Hill. Look for a few big-ticket penalty cases to let employers know OSHA is still on the beat. The agency will try to play it safe and come down hard on cases that are tough to argue with, such as fatalities, explosions, serious injuries, or involving repeat offenders.

"Joe's got to show he's not giving up on enforcement," says one source. But he must be careful. One labor law attorney says OSHA can't afford another black eye like 1994's multi-million-dollar fine against an Oklahoma City tire company, which many safety and health professionals called a cheap publicity stunt.

As for standards, a recordkeeping proposal is said to be close to appearing in the Federal Register. But generally, '96 is expected to be another light year for rulemaking. The presidential campaign is no time to make waves with controversial issues like ergonomics and indoor air quality.

Plugging away

With enforcement and standards mired in politics, look for OSHA to keep plugging away at reinvention. "It's in our best interest" to keep moving on it to show that OSHA reform bills aren't necessary, says an agency official. "The best offense is a good defense. Reinvention is a very high priority." The agency wants to do as much "reinventing" as possible this year to give time for projects to show results. For instance, officials like to tout the benefits of the "Maine 200" targeted inspection program, claiming 174,000 hazards have been uncovered, with about 119,000 being corrected. This is the kind of ammo Dear needs when meeting critics on Capitol Hill.

Budget permitting, OSHA will roll out more Maine 200-type programs this year. Already efforts are underway in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North and South Dakota. There are also plans to put 20 more area offices through reinvention training, bringing the total number to 32 -slightly less than half of all 67 area offices.

Getting serious

Interestingly, one source close to OSHA says the word has been passed down that area offices not redesigned are to operate with normal "vigor." This means no slackening off on serious and willful violations. In '96 organized labor wants OSHA to live up to its reinvention rhetoric‹if the "new OSHA" means less nitpicking and more emphasis on bad problems, serious and willful penalties per inspection should increase. This didn't happen last year. Another reinvention priority will be to issue a compliance directive to field inspectors outlining a new penalty reduction policy.

One part of the new OSHA strategy that probably won't go far is taking the focused inspection concept used on construction sites and adapting it to general industry. One agency source says it suffers from the "Not In My Backyard" syndrome -employers in industries like steel and automotive like the idea, but say it's not for them.

There's another factor driving OSHA's urge to reinvent itself, one more personal than political. 1996 is almost certainly Joe Dear's final year at the agency, his last chance to push changes far enough along for the next agency chief to finish them. Thwarted in his attempts to issue landmark regulations on indoor air quality or ergonomics, Dear's legacy is now wrapped up in the success or failure of the "new OSHA."