The theme of President Obama's 2008 campaign was "change," and during the first year of his administration, Congress has translated that theme into two major domestic policy initiativesoverhauling the U.S.' health care system and instituting a cap-and-trade system based on the belief that greenhouse gas emissions are the principal cause of global warming.
Although health care and global warming issues are dominating the domestic policy stage in Washington, D.C., change also is under way at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that could lead to more regulations and increased enforcement activity for roofing contractors.
A controversial nominee
Obama has nominated David Michaels, a research professor and interim chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, as OSHA's assistant secretary of labor. Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Democrats would prefer to take Michaels' nomination directly to the Senate floor for a vote; however, he has what appears to be a controversial record, and many in the business community are demanding a traditional confirmation hearing be held.
In October, the pro-business Coalition for Workplace Safety, co-chaired by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote to HELP Committee members requesting a hearing for Michaels, pointing out Michaels has "advocated for more government regulation, even when the available science and data to support such regulations is inadequate or unsettled. He has also attacked the landmark, unanimous Supreme Court decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, which stands for the proposition that scientific evidence in litigation must meet certain standards to be admitted. Michaels has also been the beneficiary of product liability actions which have been shown to be without merit."
According to the letter and an op-ed in The Washington Times, Michaels directs the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy Support (SKAPP), which receives funds from groups with political agendas and the trial lawyer industry. One of them is George Soros' Open Society Institute, which funds activist groups, including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, more commonly known as ACORN. The letter urges a hearing to explore the views promoted by SKAPP and how those views would influence Michaels' approach to OSHA's agenda and regulations.
A confirmation hearing also would permit exploration of Michaels' appearance before Congress in 2007 when he testified that OSHA should be even more aggressive in its efforts to issue and enforce additional workplace regulations. He also advocated greater use of OSHA's General Duty Clause for issuing citations.
Congressional Democrats also are pushing legislation to give OSHA more authority. The Protecting America's Workers Act (PAWA), S. 1580 and H.R. 2067, would give whistleblowers more power, provide workers and families a greater role in OSHA's enforcement system, and significantly increase the agency's penalties.
PAWA also would broaden the term "employer" to mean any responsible corporate officer, and employees and employee representatives would be allowed to challenge settlement agreements and citation modifications.
An uncertain future
Proposed changes to OSHA would come at a time when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that workplaces are safer than ever. In fact, workplace fatalities fell to the lowest number on record in 2008.
Nonetheless, the administration requested a 9 percent increase for Labor Department worker protection efforts to $1.7 billion, which will be used to hire 670 new compliance officers for agencies, including OSHA. Also, if administration changes are supplemented by PAWA, more OSHA compliance officers will have significantly higher penalties at their disposal.
Craig S. Brightup is chief executive officer of The Brightup Group LLC, Washington, D.C.
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