Brace yourself. The Occupational Safety and Health Act stands a better chance now of being seriously amended than at any time since it was first written in 1970. How so? The move by Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to the Democratic Party combined with what seems to be the probable court-confirmed victory of Al Franken to take his seat on the Democratic side of the Senate would give the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, plus a majority in the House and of course a Democrat in the White House.

Make no mistake, Congress has larger national priorities than raising OSHA civil penalties and indexing penalties to inflation; setting mandatory minimum penalties for violations involving job fatalities; allowing felony prosecutions against employers who commit willful violation resulting in death or serious injury, and extending those penalties to corporate officers; bringing public sector, railroad and airline employees, and Energy Department contractors under OSHA compliance; and giving accident victims and their families greater participation in enforcement proceedings and the right to contest enforcement decisions — all provisions of the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067) introduced last week in the House, and the soon-to-be reintroduced mirror image version of the bill in the Senate.

Reform bills such as these have been introduced repeatedly in the past decades to no avail, but now a “perfect storm” of forces pushing for expanded and increased OSHA powers is brewing in Washington. For the first time since the OSH Act was written, you have an activist Democratic president, a strongly pro-union Secretary of Labor, an acting OSHA chief who for years was a union safety and health official, and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Plus, there is the pent-up demand for fundamental changes to the OSH Act that has been building for decades across a broad spectrum of unions, public health groups, grassroots job safety and health coalitions, academics, researchers, some highly visible safety and health professionals from private industry, and some of the professional societies.

You very well might not see Congressional Democrats push an OSHA reform bill to the House and Senate floors for full votes in 2009, and signed into law by President Obama. Not with the economy in crisis; energy, healthcare, education and immigration legislation big-ticket items; and numerous foreign policy issues. But it could happen in 2010 or 2011, before the politics of the next presidential election rule out controversial actions in 2012.

Here is how Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) explained the forces coming together to suggest the real possibility of OSHA reform, in his opening remarks before a hearing held earlier this week by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee that Kennedy chairs:

“Twenty years ago, workplace safety advocates and families of employees killed on the job launched Workers Memorial Day — a day of remembrance and advocacy. Since the first observance of Workers Memorial Day, however, almost 125,000 men and women have been killed on the job, an average of almost 6,000 a year. Clearly, we must do much more to protect hard-working Americans.

“In President Obama and Vice President Biden we have leaders who are committed to worker safety. When he was on the HELP Committee, then-Senator Obama built a record of making workplace safety and health a priority. As President, he is continuing that commitment. He and Secretary Solis have stated they intend to make protecting workers on the job a top priority at the Department of Labor.

“As the Executive Branch does its part, so too must we do ours. Enacting of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 was a major step in guaranteeing the basic right of workers to be safe on the job. Since the law was signed, however, we have not substantially amended it to improve worker protections.

“We have, however, learned much in the 40 years since OSHA was enacted and it is long past time to use this knowledge to make significant reforms. We know that many workers are left out of the Act’s protections, and expanded coverage is essential. We know that whistleblowers are indispensable in bringing safety problems to light, but they won’t come forward unless they have strong protections. A HELP Committee report last year showed that even when employers’ violations of the Act result in workers killed on the job, the employers often walk away with just a slap on the wrist. Clearly, civil and criminal penalties should be increased.

“…the OSHA process fails victims and their families. (They) have an important contribution to make after a workplace accident, but the law gives them no right to participate in OSHA procedures. All too often, the first contact by families with OSHA comes after a case is closed. By then, the citations have been written and the penalties have been assessed, frequently, the family is not sure about what actually happened to their loved one or to the employer who was responsible.

“That’s not right. Victims and their families deserve better. No one cares more about a workplace fatality than the family of the worker who died. Yet, of all the parties involved, they are the only ones who don’t have a seat at the table.

“It’s also not good policy. Victims and their families often have valuable information about what happened and why. They may know that workers had complained about unsafe conditions, or that certain supervisors or managers were cutting corners. When victims, families, and their representatives are left out of the process, this critical information is lost. Including victims and their families and representatives is good for them, and it also may also save the lives of other workers.

“These inadequacies in the law need to be corrected, and only Congress can do it. That’s why we’ve introduced the Protecting America’s Workers Act in the past, and I plan to introduce it again. The principal reform in the bill will give workers and their families and representatives a seat at the table. It also includes sensible reforms to ensure that victims and their families have a right to talk to OSHA before a citation issues, to obtain copies of important documents, to be informed about their rights, and to have an opportunity to have their voices heard before OSHA accepts a settlement that lets an employer off the hook for violations.”