President Bush’s nominee to head OSHA, Edwin G. Foulke Jr., told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Jan. 31 that if confirmed he would work to make the agency more proactive in preventing workplace deaths and fatalities.

Foulke, an attorney for Jackson Lewis based in South Carolina, served as chair of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission from 1990 to 1995. He is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Special Expertise Panel on Employee Health, Safety and Security.

Richard Stickler, the presidential nominee to become the new assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, also faced the committee’s questions. Stickler would head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Foulke told HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., that the most significant challenge to reducing workplace injuries was “getting information and tools to small employers without the resources and personnel” to create and maintain a workplace safety plan. These employers, in particular, need outreach education and effective guidance on how to comply with the standards that apply to them, he said, according to SHRM Online.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she wondered if Foulke, who heads his firm’s OSHA practice group and represents corporate clients, would enforce stiff penalties against companies that don’t comply with OSHA regulations.

Foulke replied that in his current work, he focused on enhancing safety and health programs. He stressed that while OSHA has a primary responsibility to enforce regulations, it also should work with businesses to encourage compliance and prevent accidents, instead of correcting compliance issues after an injury or death.

“We need mandatory and voluntary programs,” Foulke said. “We need to enforce, and we need compliance outreach. Enforcement is after the fact. The goal is to prevent injuries.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., asked Foulke for assurances that OSHA would move quickly to institute proposed standards, including a regulation that would require employers to provide all workers with personal protective equipment. Kennedy noted that since Bush took office, no new workplace safety standards have been passed.

“Senator, I know that has been promulgated before, and I’ll look at it if I am confirmed,” Foulke said, adding that some existing OSHA standards already require employers to furnish protective equipment. “This would enforce that across the board,” he said.

MSHA nominee Stickler came under close examination during the hearing. He was pressed to promise swift action on suggested safety reforms. Coming in the wake of recent mining fatalities in West Virginia, Kentucky and Utah, these suggestions included improved communications devices and rescue chambers equipped with oxygen, food and water located along escape routes.

“I will study [the proposals],” Stickler said. “If some are justified and need to be advanced, I’ll do that.”

While Stickler told the committee that he believes most mine accidents would not have happened if existing laws and regulations had been followed, he acknowledged that fines for noncompliance with MSHA regulations may be too low to force mine operators to follow them.

The committee will schedule another hearing to vote on confirmation of the two nominees. The nominees must be confirmed by the entire Senate.