Walberg Seeks to Better Define Roles Of Federal, State Worker Safety Agencies

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By Stephen Lee  

Republicans in Congress may seek to more clearly define the roles of federal and state worker safety agencies to minimize businesses' exposure to multiple layers of government enforcement, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, said in a Dec. 14 interview with BNA.

“Not only are there redundancies, but there are regulations that are being applied from both levels, and they're going contrary to each other,” Walberg said.

As an example, Walberg said he recently visited a plant in Battle Creek, Mich., that had been fined by both the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Michigan's state OSHA plan within a “matter of weeks” for the same violation, even though the second fine was assessed after the company had complied with instructions given when the first fine was handed down.

“That's a problem,” Walberg said.

He also said he was “not opposed to bringing a bill into fruition that would … do away with some redundant or out-of-date regulations.”

He added that House Republicans “want to look at how we can maybe devolve ourselves, the federal government, from some of the things we do in the regulatory capacity, if indeed the state OSHAs, like my own state, MIOSHA, may be able to do it more effectively.”

State Programs Conflict With OSHA?

As another example, Walberg told of meeting with officials at a machine shop in Jackson, Mich., that builds component parts for General Motors and Chrysler, and which “has been a partner” with Michigan OSHA for several years.

“MIOSHA has been giving [them] ideas on how to make their shop safer and more productive,” Walberg said, until two or three years ago, when state inspectors began issuing citations for violations that previously would have been rectified cooperatively.

Previously, he said, the state agency would point out a problem at a business that needed to be corrected. That approach has changed so that MIOSHA now proceeds quickly to the penalty phase.

“They indicated it was pressure coming from federal OSHA, telling them they had to be more effective in citing violations that were perceived,” said Walberg, who is now serving his second term in Congress.

Walberg said he has learned through hearings conducted by his subcommittee that in many situations, the state programs are operating more efficiently than their federal counterparts. As a result, he said he wants to weed out conflicting or redundant regulations and find areas to reduce the paperwork burden.

“So those are things we can look at to reduce redundancies and costs to employers,” he said.

He further said that, in putting new rules in place, lawmakers and regulators should also seek regulations that can be peeled back, “so there aren't the conflicting redundancies, there isn't the increase of paperwork that really takes away job opportunities for people on the line, as opposed to people in the administrative offices.”

Job Creation a Priority, Walberg Says

Walberg also said that regulators should strike a better balance between ensuring worker protections and maintaining economic security.

“The challenge that I have in my position is [to] continue to upgrade safety opportunities, but work with the employer and employee alike to make sure there is that tradeoff that says, ‘Let's make it possible for the employer to provide a job that is secure, and the employee to have a safe job in the process, and that both are secure in the fact that they're working together, as opposed to being opposites of each other,' ” Walberg said.

He also said he not only supports regulatory reform efforts that have passed the House, such as the Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act (H.R. 10), which the House approved Dec. 7, but also the idea of going one step further and rolling back regulations already on the books (41 OSHR 1071, 12/15/11).

“Right now, I'm saying, at the very least, let's do no more harm,” said Walberg. “Let's do the research necessary to find out what is working, what isn't working anymore, what's unnecessary, and, if possible … absolutely, let's do away with some regulations, and put others in place that are more realistic and more helpful to the economy.”

In response to a question about whether American workers must choose between either having a job or having safety protections, Walberg said he agreed that the two are not mutually exclusive, “as long as we don't go beyond reality.”

He said in talking to workers in his district, he has found that few discuss security or safety in their workplace.

“They're talking about the insecurity that their job might not be there,” Walberg said.

Union Leaders ‘Securing Their Positions.'

He also said, however, that arguments about a false choice between jobs and job safety, when offered by union leaders, are “a different story.”

Unions are seeking to advance their self interests by claiming that only they can advocate for worker protections, according to Walberg.

When asked whether he thought Republicans and Democrats could find common ground on OSHA reform, Walberg said the two parties may be able to reach consensus on hazards in certain sectors, such as telecommunications and tree care.

Another area where potential reforms may be possible is in the training of OSHA inspectors, he said. Walberg said he consistently hears from employers that “one day they pass inspection, the next day they're guilty of numerous costly violations. That inconsistency costs jobs.”

He pointed out that even when Democrats held the White House and had majorities in both houses of Congress, they did not succeed in making the changes to worker safety policies that they are currently seeking.

“So frankly, if they couldn't do it then to the level they want to do it now, then why should we be expected to simply roll over and say, ‘Regulations can make things perfect, so we're going to do that?' That isn't reality,” Walberg said.