The occasion was a special White House event to announce initiatives aimed at creating "the new OSHA," according to press handouts. The President, Vice President Gore, and Labor Secretary Reich met with a crowd of several hundred at a small metal fabricating factory a few miles from the White House in a show of support for agency chief Joe Dear and his efforts to change how OSHA operates.
At the same time, Republicans on Capitol Hill were attacked for their efforts to change OSHA through budget cuts and legislation. Clinton drew a round of laughs when he said, "They don't want rigorous reform. It looks to me like they want rigor mortis."
Setting the stage: It was a sun-splashed, cloudless day for a Washington media event. The grass in front of Stromberg Sheet Metal Works, site of the event, was freshly cut. Two Stromberg workers standing outside as the crowd gathered said the street had never looked cleaner. Patrol cars blocked W Street from regular traffic, and Secret Service agents surveyed the scene, ear phones in place.
Three buses brought OSHA staffers, guests, the press, and officials from the National Performance Review (the organization overseen by the Vice President to coordinate government reinvention efforts). After filing past a metal detector in the cramped front lobby, visitors went out to the shop floor, lit up by hot, bright television lights. Metal ductwork had been cleared to set up small bleacher seats beneath a banner reading, "Common Sense at Work." White House advance people with an eye for camera angles filled in empty seats and positioned employees wearing Sheet Metal Workers Union tee shirts behind the podium.
The event highlighted the battle between the White House and GOP lawmakers over how to change OSHA, and it was also a rally of sorts for OSHA's fledgling reinvention campaign. Bill Freeman, the OSHA employee who came up with the idea for the Maine 200 targetted inspection program was on hand.
So were staffers from the agency's Parsippany, N.J., field office, where the "quick fix" policy of reducing penalties for violations corrected during an inspection was first tried. Members of OSHA's national "design team" were also present, pulled from offices around the country for a two-year assignment that will have them train field personnel to be problem-solvers more than the old penalty-conscious inspectors.
One redesign team member was clearly charged up about his mission. "OSHA's going to change, believe me, it's going to change," he said. "We're getting away from the 'see it, cite it' attitude about violations. "It will take five years or more to really bring about this change, but it will change," said the official, with a big grin and the enthusiasm of a missionary.
Also in the audience was Malcolm Sparrow, a Harvard professor and author of "Imposing Duties," a 1994 book about government's changing approach to compliance. Sparrow has recently worked as a consultant with OSHA's Parsippany and Atlanta East offices to build what he calls hazard mitigation skills. The Parsippany office has had success reducing lead poisoning among construction workers, and the Atlanta office is working on the problem of lacerations among poultry workers.
Sparrow says the fate of the new OSHA is in the hands of those who criticized the old enforcement-heavy OSHA-industry and Republican lawmakers. Will industry work with OSHA on solving safety and health problems? Will the Republican Congress support OSHA's budget if workplaces are safer but the number of inspections, citations, and criminal referrals drop?
OSHA critics have had a field day since Republicans took over Congress last November, and anxious agency employees have needed a pep talk. Which is what the White House delivered at the metal stamping plant. Labor Secretary Reich began by explaining how OSHA worked with Stromberg on a plan for fixing hazards that helped the company cut its workers' compensation payments to 16 percent below the industry average, and reduce its average lost work days from 340 to 49.
Vice President Gore followed by asking agency chief Dear, sitting in the front row, to stand and be recognized for doing "a really great job." He went on to applaud OSHA employees like Bill Freeman who "have shown us what's wrong with OSHA and how to fix it."
President Clinton finished up with his overview of the new OSHA. The new approach gives employers a choice. If they put in place a safety program that involves workers and that tries to find and fix hazards before accidents happen, OSHA will be a partner, Clinton said. "There will be reduced penalties, or in some cases no penalties at all. You will be inspected rarely, if ever."
But if companies act irresponsibly and put workers at risk, they will face vigorous enforcement, he added.
"We're interested in prevention, not punishment," said Clinton.
After teeing off on Republicans, who he said sought to decimate enforcement through budget cuts and dismantle the system of worker protection, Clinton closed by urging OSHA on. "Let's continue on this path. Let's change this thing," said the President.
From the back row of the audience, two OSHA employees were pumped up. "Good speech. Great speech," said one. "I never heard a president talk like this about OSHA."
"Damn, he nailed the Republicans, didn't he," said the other.
Now comes the hard part, turning words into actions and winning over industry and Congress.