Small-Business Owners Say They're Up to OSHA's Challenge
By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page E01
Small business has long wanted a larger profile when it comes to challenging federal workplace regulators. Now, thanks to a package of four bills that passed the House last month, small businesses have a shot at gaining much of the relief they sought.
One of the business community's biggest complaints about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been what it perceives to be the unfairness of the agency going after small employers who don't have the resources to fight citations. The claim has been that small businesses pay because they don't have the time or money to fight.
Republicans in the House have taken the complaints seriously, pushing through provisions -- with some help from Democrats -- that will give employers more time to fight citations, make it easier to recoup legal fees if they win a case against OSHA, and not allow the agency to have the final word in how a standard is applied.
The sponsor of the bills, Rep. Charles Whitlow Norwood (R-Ga.), chairman of the workforce protections subcommittee of the Education and Workforce Committee, views the legislation as a fairness issue. New laws, he said in a statement, would level "the playing field for small business by giving them new tools to fight unjust OSHA citations.
The bills were bundled with a paperwork reduction reform initiative that also passed the House, but seem to have only mixed prospects in the Senate. Business lobbyists hope that they might slide through by hitching a ride on an end-of-the-session bill.
"We would like them to be attached to another piece of legislation. These don't change workplace safety regulations. We are trying to get some fairness in the court system. We think the bills are very reasonable. They don't go too far," said Christopher M. Tampio, director of employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, one of the main backers of the effort.
The bills would do the following:
• Businesses would have more than 15 days to signal they want to contest an OSHA citation in front of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent agency that reviews disputes between employers, workers and OSHA.
Currently, employers have 15 days to file responses to citations, though the commission can waive a deadline if it finds the company missed it for good reason.
In one recent case, often cited by business lobbyists, a company missed the deadline because a secretary lost the certified mail from OSHA informing the company it was being fined $11,265. The commission excused the company. But OSHA went to court and won, meaning the 15-day deadline was upheld.
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