Early in the August dog days, a very routine meeting of OSHA's national advisory committee offered up many of the reasons why it's been difficult for the agency to accomplish much of anything in the 1990s. It's certainly not for a lack of trying. "These people are gluttons for punishment," joked one OSHA official, commenting on the decision by the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health to hold two days of meetings in the dead of summer. "They're really the most dedicated group I've worked with."

Dedicated and frustrated. Committee members shook their heads over OSHA chief Charles Jeffress's report on the fiscal year 1999 budget battle. The House Appropriations Committee voted to provide $336.7 million in funds, the same amount that OSHA is working with in the current fiscal year. "This is a $9 million hit we'll have to eat," Jeffress estimated, taking into account the cost of salary increases and other expenses that must be adjusted for inflation.

Jeffress calculated the total damage to be a $14-million reduction in current funding when the $9 million 'hit' is added to $5.5 million that the committee moved from enforcement programs to compliance assistance efforts. "The President, the Secretary (of Labor), and the Office of Management and Budget believe this is a significant blow to the program," said Jeffress. Unless OSHA spending is adequately increased, President Clinton will veto the appropriations bill, he said.

"It's very distressing to hear this news, given the minuscule amount of money this nation spends on worker health and safety," said committee member Byron Orton, commissioner of labor for the state of Iowa.

"We've got to get off this business of being adversarial," said Henry Lick, another committee member and manager of industrial hygiene for Ford Motor Company. Apparently weary of witnessing the same budget fights year after year, Lick raised the level of indignation: "We don't get progress until we kill people. It's too bad progress has to be measured in blood. Whole generations go by without problems being solved."

Perhaps because he's newer to the fray, OSHA chief Jeffress was able to salt his remarks with humor. Asked about the timetable for issuing a proposed standard on safety and health programs, he allowed that there had been "several timetables" and wasn't sure which one to refer to. Referring to a proposed Republican bill that would extend OSHA coverage to the U.S. Postal Service, Jeffress said he got no volunteers when he asked states with OSHA programs if they would take on postal worker oversight.

Jeffress's light touch has served him well in negotiating with the various interest groups that regularly petition OSHA. As one labor law attorney explains: "Everyone thinks the agency should serve them. There's a master-servant relationship with interest groups."

That's not to say Jeffress is a pushover. "He'll tell you what he thinks, and he doesn't give you lip service," says one source close to the agency. "I think Charles is up to the job. He's politically savvy."

"He's trying to do some things," says a union safety and health director approvingly.

A common dilemma

But what can OSHA do? At the NACOSH meeting, Jeffress said the proposed standard on safety and health programs will be issued before the end of 1998. "I'm reviewing a staff proposal now," he explained. An ergonomics proposal will be out no sooner than mid-1999. "I'm trying to push the process along," he said, adding that questions remain about the standard's scope, trigger mechanism, and issues regarding keyboard users and retail cashiers.

This is ambitious thinking, according to a number of OSHA-watchers. And it's not just because these standards are costly and tackle such thorny legal and technical issues as: What is the significant risk addressed by the safety program standard? How many wrist movements constitute an ergonomic hazard? More broadly, OSHA's ability to deliver on its promises is hampered by a challenge well-known to industry - how to do more with less.

The August NACOSH meeting showed how this question of the '90s bedevils OSHA. Congress wants the agency to do more - proposing to add nearly one-million postal workers under OSHA's jurisdiction. Another bill moving through Congress would require the agency to revisit its hazard communication standard. Introduced by Republican and Democratic sponsors and supported by a coalition of 28 industry trade associations, the proposal calls for OSHA to require specific "emergency overview" information on the front of every MSDS. "If the bill passes, every label on every chemical shipment would have to be changed," Jeffress told the committee.

In addition, OSHA is in the process of assuming responsibility for regulating the safety of private contractors at Department of Energy facilities. NACOSH members were told by the agency's Jennifer Silk that OSHA would be taking on 135,000 private contractor employees and "some real institutional safety and health problems" with inadequate resources to match. OSHA needs an additional $28.7 million to handle the DOE assignment, according to Silk.

The NACOSH meeting agenda also reflected the priorities of various interest groups. OSHA officials reported on whistleblower protection and safety incentive programs in response to concerns by labor groups who argue that OSHA is too lax in guarding the rights of employees who raise safety concerns, and too benign in addressing the potential for incentive programs to drive injury reporting underground.

The committee also heard impassioned words from Bill Borwegen, safety and health director of the Service Employees International Union, on the need for OSHA to do more in protecting health care workers from needle sticks. "Every year a plane load of health care workers dies from this invisible enemy. This untenable situation screams for more aggressive activity by OSHA and NIOSH," he said.

All in a half-day's work

Ergonomics, safety and health programs, hazard communication, whistleblower protection, safety incentives, coverage of postal workers and DOE contractors, and needle stick injuries were all discussed in the first four hours of the NACOSH meeting. Brief mention was also given to revising the tuberculosis standard as it applies to homeless shelters, OSHA's continuing review of issues relating to indoor air quality, a forthcoming standard on powered industrial trucks, and a proposed rule on steel erection to be unveiled the next day. Using negotiated rulemaking, it took OSHA a relatively speedy four years to propose the steel erection standard, which Jeffress kiddingly described as "astonishing."

Learning to savor small victories is a help in surviving at OSHA. It appears, as one source says, that Charles Jeffress is a "quick study."