Two acts of safety before Congress

Confused? It`s easy to be because there are actually two measures with the same name before the U.S. House of Representatives. One of them is called the Safety Advancement for Employees Act, HR 2579, and the other is the Security and Freedom through Encryption Act, HR 850.

Mark A. DeSorbo

There`s the safe Act and then there`s the safe Act.

Confused? It`s easy to be because there are actually two measures with the same name before the U.S. House of Representatives. One of them is called the Safety Advancement for Employees Act, HR 2579, and the other is the Security and Freedom through Encryption Act, HR 850.

The latter act has been endorsed by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA--Arlington, VA). TIA`s president Matthew J. Flanigan says the act will lift export restrictions on U.S.-made products that incorporate encryption technology.

The other safe Act deals with a different kind of safety. On any given day, 17 workers die on the job, and more than 18,000 are injured. For U.S. Representative Deborah Pryce (R-OH), even one injury is too many. Pryce, in fact, says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for worker safety, is often part of the problem and not the solution.

"The safe Act is an important step toward achieving safer workplaces," Pryce wrote in a Congressional op-ed piece. "The bill encourages employers to voluntarily seek expert advice from private-sector safety consultants on how to comply with osha`s burdensome regulations and creates effective partnerships between employers and OSHA that will empower employers to improve worker safety." That, she adds, will allow OSHA to concentrate its enforcement efforts on employers who are not implementing safety precautions at their work sites.

Several provisions in the safe Act aim to improve workplace safety through

- a law that will permit a contractor to hire a third-party consultant to audit a workplace specifically for possible osha violations. Construction companies could then correct any problems and be exempt from osha monetary penalties for a year.

- mandatory drug testing as part of a comprehensive safety and health program

- ongoing training for osha compliance officers and eliminating the National Labor Relations Board rule that prohibits open shop contractors from bringing their employees together to improve workplace safety and health

- codifying the Small Business Technical Assistance Program, which will give contractors a safety resource within osha that can help them protect their workers.

In March, Scott Hobbs, president of Hobbs Inc., a contracting company in New Canaan, CT, testified in favor of the bill before the U.S. Senate on behalf of the Associated General Contractors of America. Hobbs also testified in January 1998 before the House Committee on Small Business.

Noting Pryce`s findings, Hobbs says there is one OSHA inspector for every 3000 job sites. "That means that osha can inspect job sites under its jurisdiction once every 167 years," Hobbs said in a telephone interview. "OSHA does a reasonable job policing the really bad sites, but they usually show up after an accident and impose a fine."

A fine, he says, just adds to an already frenzied situation. By the time OSHA arrives on the scene, the injured party is already collecting workman`s compensation and has filed lawsuits against everybody except his employer. "On top of a couple million-dollar lawsuits, an OSHA fine just adds insult to injury," Hobbs adds. "The rewards for being in compliance would be a safer workplace with fewer costly accidents and a one-year exemption from osha fines for any good-faith violations."

An example of a good-faith violation, Hobbs explains, would be if certain documents were not properly displayed, yet most of the required paperwork was displayed and workers were adhering to the work that was outlined within them. "If there were no postings or fraudulent postings, the contractor would still be subject to osha fines," he adds.

On March 4, Hobbs told the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training that proven methods for improving safety and health in the construction industry are reflected in the safe Act. He explained to senators that small and medium-sized contractors face many safety and health challenges, such as developing an injuries and hazards prevention program, ensuring that employees are properly trained to avoid hazards, and evaluating the success of those programs. In addition to these concerns, small and medium-sized companies must also comply with osha regulations.

"I have enough trouble running my business, let alone reading 1200 pages of osha health and safety standards that are arcane and not fun to read," Hobbs told Cabling Installation & Maintenance. "The essence of the bill is that it encourages employers to hire third-party consultants to ensure that the company is following OSHA-approved safety procedures. Safety pays. Morale is better, productivity is better, there is less turnover, and insurance premiums are lower."

The main provision of the safe Act, however, has also generated some controversy. That provision would allow contractors to hire a qualified safety professional to audit a job site for possible OSHA violations.

"As written, we have serious problems with it," says Michael Fluharty, a spokesman for OSHA. "It would set up a voluntary compliance system rather than one that would require the employer to comply. As it is written, what a third-party consultant finds or recommends does not have to be implemented."

A division of the Department of Labor, OSHA has recommended that President Clinton veto the bill. "The President said if the bill is submitted to him, it will be vetoed," Fluharty adds.

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