Four bills designed by Republican Congressman Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., to make it easier for employers "to work voluntarily and proactively with OSHA," according to Norwood, passed the House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee on April 13.

All of the bills were introduced in 2004 and passed the House of Representatives, but no action was taken in the Senate. “I’m committed to moving these bills through the House as quickly as possible and remain hopeful the Senate will act on them as well,” Norwood said in a press statement about this year’s prospects.

The four bills are:

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Small Business Day in Court Act (H.R. 739) — would allow the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) to make exceptions to the 15-day deadline for employers to file responses to OSHA citations when a small business misses the deadline by mistake or for good reason. Currently, employers who miss the deadline lose their right to have the case heard in court.

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission Efficiency Act (H.R. 740) — would increase the membership of the OSHRC from three to five members in an attempt to ensure cases are reviewed in a timely fashion.

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Independent Review of OSHA Citations Act (H.R. 741) — would clarify that OSHRC is an independent judicial entity given deference by the courts that review OSHA issues. OSHRC would be defined as the party that interprets the law and provides an independent review of OSHA citations.

  • The Occupational Safety and Health Small Employer Access to Justice Act (H.R. 742) — would ask OSHA to assess the merits of cases more thoroughly before it brings enforcement actions to court against small businesses. Under current law small business owners can recover attorney’s fees if the owner successfully challenges a citation. But if OSHA can establish that its enforcement action was “substantially justified” or the result of “special circumstances,” small businesses can be refused the fees, even if OSHA loses the case in court. The standard for these two exceptions has been broadly interpreted, causing small businesses to spend even more to recoup the attorney’s fees, the bill's supporters said.

    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce likes what it sees in the bills, saying they would help protect small employers against frivolous OSHA citations without sacrificing health and safety protections for employees.

    “The measures are a good first step to give small businesses better ways to contest questionable citations, recoup fees and expedite the appeals process,” said Randel Johnson, Chamber vice president of labor policy.

    Democrats not surprisingly, see it differently.

    “This administration has launched a persistent attack on workplace safety,” said Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., in a press release. “This package of legislation will create an environment where OSHA’s judgment is questioned and workers’ safety and lives are jeopardized.”

    Wu added that the bills would allow employers to delay correcting life-threatening problems in the workplace and prolong workers’ exposure to risk, while discouraging OSHA from taking employers to court over health and safety violations.