Better days may be coming for OSHA this fall. For most of 1995, anti-regulatory fever on Capitol Hill has run strongest in the House of Representatives. Feisty young Republicans-true believers in the need to cut government down to size-have held hearings, proposed bills, and whacked OSHA's budget by 15.5 percent, with enforcement spending cut by one-third.

But before the year is out, a number of observers believe the Senate will temper House plans like parents calling off a teenage party. One source predicts a 10-percent funding cut will be the final result. "It's just the way the institution works, it's always a more moderating influence," says a lobbyist.

Aside from the budget battle, the other major OSHA fight on Capitol Hill this fall will be Rep. Cass Ballenger's (R-N.C.) effort to turn the agency into less of an enforcer and more of a consultant. Ballenger's bill might sail through the sympathetic House, but no one in Washington contacted for this article expects the Senate to give its approval. "There just isn't anyone like Ballenger in the Senate who's gung ho on radically changing OSHA's focus," says a lobbyist.

So OSHA might escape the first year of Republican rule in Congress with a 10-percent funding cut and no major reform legislation. A one-year ban on work relating to an ergonomics standard may or may not fly, sources say. If this is all Congress does after a year of calling for OSHA's scalp, the agency will consider itself very fortunate. And those who argue that real change in Washington is impossible will have another piece of evidence.

But what about the plans of OSHA chief Dear, Vice President Gore, and President Clinton himself to "reinvent" OSHA? Like everything else surrounding the agency, it engenders debate. On the right, the conservative Heritage Foundation calls it "OSHA's Trivial Pursuit," and says it should be stopped because it's not bold enough. On the left, labor-backed coalitions for job safety and health also want it dropped, saying the agency is gutting itself to appease employers and Republicans.

Interviews with officials both in Washington and across field offices during the past year show that "OSHA reinvention" is driven by two distinct groups-frustrated careerists who feel command-and-control methods miss the mark, and TQM-conscious political appointees who want to try out their ideas for better government. Their work took on a sense of urgency after last November's election, and got a shot in the arm this past May when the White House announced a slate of reinvention initiatives at a factory rally in Washington. Here's a status report on five of those plans:

1. Efforts to better "leverage" inspection resources, epitomized by the "Maine 200" program that uses workers' compensation records to identify workplaces most in need of OSHA's attention, are now under way in Wisconsin, and slated to begin in New Hampshire. South Dakota and Ohio might also see programs, according to sources.

2. Focused inspections, which began last year at construction sites, will start in general industry in the next few months on a very select basis. Narrow manufacturing sectors will be singled out, such as segments of the auto industry. The focus will be on priority safety issues such as lockout-tagout and confined spaces.

Rating safety programs

Inspectors now are being trained in how to conduct these audits. A key element is how to determine if an employer has a safety program good enough to warrant an abbreviated inspection. Compliance officers will have a list of questions to ask about important program elements like management support and employee involvement. Answers will be rated on a scale of one to five; the higher the total score, the better the program.

How OSHA evaluates employers' safety and health programs could be the most far-reaching action the agency takes in the next year, since standards-setting and enforcement are traditionally soft-pedaled during presidential campaigns. Attempts to come up with a rating system for safety programs will no doubt be controversial. As with its ideas for an ergonomics standard, OSHA will be accused of taking a rigid checklist approach to something that is hard to define, and looks different in every workplace.

Still, the agency believes safety programs can educate and motivate employers beyond what's possible with standards and enforcement-particularly in the current political climate. "Effective safety and health programs are the most important factor in reducing injuries and illnesses," says one agency official. The idea is to use a rating system to identify where inspectors need to be, and to motivate employers to build highly rated programs.

3. Which leads to the subject of penalty reductions. High-rated programs will be eligible for breaks up to 80 percent.

4. The "quick fix" enforcement policy, where compliance officers withhold penalties for minor hazards that are abated before the inspection is over, has been instituted.

5. If reinvention is ever to be more than paper policies, it will depend on the troops in the field. How they handle complaints, conduct inspections, try to make the most of meager resources. By the end of next year, half (37) of all OSHA area offices are scheduled for five to seven weeks of training in new ways of doing business. Offices in Parsippany, N.J., and Atlanta have led the way, followed by Savannah, Ga.; Columbus, Ohio; St. Louis; Kansas City; and Wichita. Before the year's out, OSHA's "redesign team" of veteran field officers, consultants, and senior officials from Washington will have moved on to Erie, Pa.; Providence, R.I.; Fort Worth; Boise, Idaho; and Omaha, Neb.

Each office will be schooled in conflict resolution, teamwork, complaint processing, and new computer technology. Teams will be set up for technical assistance outreach and local area problem-solving. Injury and illness data will be used to focus on specific problems-in the Parsippany area it was high blood lead levels among certain construction workers. Partnerships with state and local governments, industry, insurance companies, and unions will be brokered to achieve measurable results. The Parsippany office has been able to show a 25-percent reduction in blood lead levels, for instance.

Parsippany's Area Director Robert Kulick is the type of "change agent" needed to convince OSHA personnel that there are better ways to improve workplace safety than the old law-and-order approach, according to those involved with the reinvention effort. Strongly committed to the agency's mission, Kulick believes changes are needed to achieve it. He's open to ideas, and soaks up modern management theories like a sponge, associates say.

Old convictions

The problem, according to many safety professionals, is that for every Kulick there's an agency manager or inspector who "doesn't get the message." Reinvention leaders call them risk-averse. Others call them champions of the old way, throwbacks to the 1970s. Some like to show up employers. Others see themselves as de-facto workplace safety managers who protect employees by being the cop on the beat. The idea of employers as "customers" of the agency is anathema to these vets.

This problem is compounded by Dear's desire to give field officers more authority, and his reluctance to come down hard on those who don't walk the reinvention talk, according to some sources. "Sometimes you have to whack people in line, even your friends," says one former OSHA director. Dear hasn't done this, several sources say, resulting in an uneven pattern of new and old OSHA behavior around the country.

In the end, if safety and health professionals see a truly "new OSHA" in the field, it won't be due to discipline as much as acceptance on the part of agency personnel that this is where their future lies. How the competing views of OSHA pragmatists and traditionalists shake out in the next year could mean more to safety pros than anything that happens on Capitol Hill.