WASHINGTON -- The House voted Tuesday to make employer-friendly changes to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, including adding two members to a violations review commission, increasing its power, extending deadlines for companies to challenge citations and allowing more of them to recoup lawyers' fees.
Republicans said the four bills would enhance OSHA's oversight of employers and improve the regulatory process.
Democrats said the legislation was an election-year gift to big business, intended to weaken regulation that ultimately would hurt workers.
"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."
Republicans argued the four bills make technical, easily understood changes that remove unnecessary red tape on employers by OSHA, a Labor Department agency.
"I would argue the bills enhance OSHA's ability to work with employers in a voluntary way to increase the health and safety of workers," Boehner said.
Democrats countered that the bills do nothing to improve job protections for workers, and Republicans are looking out only for their employer campaign contributors.
"You never get any bills from them seeking to protect workers," Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., said about the Republicans.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported all four bills. "These are commonsense reforms that will make important improvements in the way small businesses work with OSHA," said Randell Johnson, the Chamber's vice president for labor policy.
The AFL-CIO lobbied to defeat the bills. "We think the bills do nothing to improve worker safety and in fact would weaken enforcement," said Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO safety and health director.
The four bills face an uphill battle for passage in the Senate, which has no 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.
In the latest figures available, worker fatalities fell from 5,915 workers in 2001 to 5,524 workers in 2002 -- an unprecedented 6.6 percent drop.
About 4.7 million workplace injuries and illnesses were reported to OSHA in 2002, or 5.3 cases per 100 workers. Those numbers are not comparable to previous years' data because the Labor Department changed how it gathers the information.
On the Net: