The House of Representatives this week passed OSHA reform bills that could enable employers to get more time to challenge citations and allow more companies to recoup lawyers' fees, according to an Associated Press report.

Another measure approved by the House would increase the Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission's power.

Prospects for passage is slim in the Senate — also controlled by Republicans but by a narrower margin. That chamber does not have similar legislation pending. In fact, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is pushing a bill that would expand OSHA worker protections and increase penalties for violations.

"Don't hamstring small businesses' ability to continue to hire new workers and compete in our economy," said GOP Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. "That's why these bills are important."

Democrats said the legislation was an election-year gift to big business, intended to weaken regulation. They warned that such changes ultimately would hurt workers.

Republicans argued the four bills improve oversight and remove unnecessary red tape for employers.

The legislation "will go a long way towards bringing about the safest workplace possible by replacing the overly complex, arbitrary and unintentional legal traps in current OSHA law with common sense and cooperation between OSHA and employers to deliver results for workers," said Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., the bills' sponsor.

The bills:

  • H.R. 2728 would allow the OSHA Review Commission, which hears companies' appeals on violations, to extend a 15-day deadline for employers to respond to citations.

    The commission could grant extensions to employers that missed the deadline because of a "mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect."

  • H.R. 2729 would increase the review commission's membership from three to five members.

  • H.R. 2730 would let the review commission's interpretations of laws and its decisions trump those of the labor secretary and OSHA, a Labor Department agency, when a judge deems the commission's decisions reasonable.

    Opponents said the measure would overturn a 1991 Supreme Court decision that said the labor secretary should be given deference over the review commission.

  • H.R. 2731 would require the government to refund lawyers' fees of small businesses when they prevail in court cases brought by OSHA, even if the labor secretary or the government were "substantially justified" in pursuing the violation. Such costs to OSHA are estimated at $7 million a year.

    Currently, small businesses may recover litigation costs only if the government's position was found unjustifiable by the review commission.