Give Senator Mike Enzi, a freshman Republican from Wyoming, credit for this: he's persistent. After coming out with a bill to reform OSHA earlier this year, he introduced a new version on September 30th that has more support among Republicans than any OSHA bill crafted since the GOP took control of Congress in 1994-and there have been at least a half-dozen.

The Safety Advancement for Employees Act (SAFE) combines all of Enzi's previously introduced OSHA bill with some provisions from another bill that had been introduced by Senator Judd Gregg (R-Vt.). Co-sponsors of SAFE include Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Senate Labor Committee Chairman Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), and Public Health and Safety Labor Committee Chairman Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Rep. James Talent (R-Mo.), chairman of the House Small Business Committee, has introduced almost identical OSHA legislation on the House side. Two Democrats are co-sponsors of Talent's bill.

It's no coincidence that a press conference announcing the SAFE proposal was held one week before Senate confirmation hearings for OSHA chief nominee Charles Jeffress, according to one source. The proposal is a reminder to Jeffress and the Clinton administration that Republicans will be keeping a close watch on the agency, says the source.

Inspection exemptions

But Sen. Enzi is not just firing a shot across OSHA's bow. "It's for real," he said in a statement. "This is the best shot we've had in 30 years of passing (OSHA reform) legislation." He says he's tried to draft as moderate a bill as possible.

The heart of the bill focuses on a third-party consultation services program. An advisory committee made up of employees, employers, the general public, and states with safety and health plans would set standards for certifying individuals to be OSHA-approved consultants. Individuals qualified to conduct these audits and evaluations must be:

licensed by a state authority as a physician, industrial hygienist, professional engineer, safety engineer, safety professional, or occupational nurse;

employed as an inspector for a state OSHA plan or as a federal OSHA inspector for not less than five years;

qualified in an occupational health and safety field by an organization whose program has been accredited by a nationally recognized private accreditation organization or by the secretary of labor; or

determined to be qualified by the secretary of labor.

Employers could voluntarily enlist the services of these consultants. Ten days after conducting an audit, the consultant would provide a written report to the employer identifying any safety and health violations and recommending corrective action. The consultant would again inspect the employer's workplace to verify that any hazards have been abated. If so, the consultant would provide the employer with a declaration of compliance.

This document would exempt employers from any civil penalty under the Occupational Safety and Health Act for two years. The exemption would not apply if the employer has not made a good faith effort to remain in compliance, and if there has been a fundamental change in hazards in the workplace.

Key provisions

Other provisions of the bill include:

all final OSHA standards must be submitted to the National Academy of Sciences for review prior to the standards becoming law;

all OSHA personnel performing inspections, consultations, or working on standards requiring knowledge of safety and health disciplines must obtain private sector professional certification within two years of being hired at OSHA;

employees who willfully violate OSHA standards, such as failing to wear PPE, may be issued citations if an inspector determines that the employer was in compliance;

citations for violating standards will be dropped if an employer can demonstrate that alternative methods were as protective as those prescribed by regulation;

employers will be permitted to set up drug and alcohol abuse testing programs;

employers will be allowed to set up "participation groups" to address safety and health issues without violating National Labor Relations Act rules on "labor organizations."

Fast track?

What are the prospects for Enzi's bill moving through Congress? A press release issued by Enzi's office said the proposal is "steamrolling through Congress." That may be a bit premature. Jeffords told Industrial Safety & Hygiene News it was unlikely that the Senate Labor Committee he chairs would debate the measure before Congress adjourns for the year in November.

The House will wait for the Senate to act before moving ahead with its version of the bill, according to a source. Sen. Enzi told ISHN he believes Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) will hold off on re-introducing a version of his controversial OSHA reform bill until he sees if Enzi's proposal has a chance of passage. If bi-partisan support does not develop, Ballenger is "ready to draw the line in the sand again," says Enzi.

Business groups that have weighed in with support include the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The American Society of Safety Engineers supports the legislation, and the American Industrial Hygiene Association supports most elements of the bill.

But labor unions are vehement in their opposition. "I'm very disappointed in their reaction," says Enzi. "They've given me no ideas. They want no changes. I don't know anything that doesn't need changing after 27 years since the original OSH Act was enacted."

Enzi wants to move his bill quickly through Congress before his coalition of moderate and conservative supporters falls apart. "A lot of people out there want to draw the line in the sand over OSHA," he says.

But one long-time observer of battles over OSHA reform says, "It's hard to imagine the bill going anywhere without some radical changes."

What's OSHA's position on the bill? Enzi and Jeffress, who was expected to be confirmed by the Senate by November, have already met to discuss it. At his confirmation hearing, Jeffress politely expressed reservations about provisions while offering to meet with Enzi for more talks.