It's no secret that the Bush administration prefers voluntary, collaborative efforts on the part of companies to improve their safety records. Since the administration took over in 2001, the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has forged hundreds of agreements with companies and business associations to improve their safety records while rulemaking has been sharply curtailed.

According to OSHA Assistant Secretary John Henshaw, the approach has resulted in safer workplaces with fewer fatalities, injuries and illnesses -- what he calls the triple bottom line. "I've seen what works and doesn't work on the shop floor," said Henshaw, reflecting his own career as a safety and health professional at chemical companies, Monsanto Co. and Astaris LLC, before he came to the safety agency.

But labor unions and some watchdog groups would rather OSHA play its more traditional role, issuing regulations.

"We have a preference for an actual regulation that is enforceable and fair across the board," said J. Robert Shull, senior regulatory policy analyst at OMB Watch, a nonprofit group funded mostly by foundations that has three union officials among its 15 directors.

Adds Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO: Setting and enforcing standards is part of their mission. "So why aren't they?"

Since fall 2000, the agency has not been regulating in the traditional sense, OMB Watch found in a series of reviews. Twenty-four rules that were in some stage of development on OSHA's agenda were withdrawn by the administration. Nine rules were completed, but none were major and several were related to recordkeeping.

In examining the agency's December 2003 and June 2004 regulatory agendas, which track the progress of its rules, OMB Watch found that that since last December, OSHA has revised a rule on commercial diving operations, reexamined one on mechanical power presses and changed how musculoskeletal disorders are reported. It completed one rule, to protect shipyard workers from fire hazards, and yesterday proposed new standards to protect workers from hexavalent chromium, a chemical used in chrome plating. That was under a court order.

"It's a meager output. It's the black hole of government," Shull said. "OSHA cleared the decks of its agenda. Just swept it clean." His group maintains that gutting the agency's regulatory agenda is a sop to business, which won a big victory when the Bush administration cancelled a final rule to protect workers from ergonomic injuries.

Early in the Bush administration, Henshaw said he didn't put much stock in the regulatory agenda, calling it a wish list that contained proposals that had been incubating for years with no result. He said he preferred a "to-do" list -- which OMB Watch now calls a "do-nothing" list.

That list has 24 items, including whether employers have to pay for protective equipment for their workers.

Said Henshaw, who inherited the protective equipment proposal from the Clinton administration: "We're reviewing the comments now and we're committed to taking the next step. But I don't want to say exactly what the next step is."

His emphasis, he said, has been on cooperative efforts with business and stepped-up enforcement of "bad actors" who are responsible for most safety problems.

The agency has formed 231 long-term alliances with trade associations and companies since 2002 that emphasize outreach, education, and sharing "best practices." OSHA under Henshaw has forged 214 active strategic partnerships that set safety goals involving 4,762 employers, and there are 1,153 voluntary protection program sites, where companies with exemplary safety records forego routine inspections.

Critics of the agency are leery of these arrangements, where union participation is minimal. And they don't entirely trust the numbers OSHA uses to support its claim that injures and illnesses are decreasing. Unions don't consider the reports dependable, she said, because they are furnished by employers.

Seminario points out that there have been two major changes in the way employers collect injury and illness data since 2002, making comparisons to earlier years difficult. For example, the incidence of musculoskeletal injuries on the job -- injuries from repetitive work and poorly designed workplaces -- is no longer reported separately.

Data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on days missed from work for illness show that over the past few years, the percentage of days taken off due to injuries and illnesses related to ergonomic issues has remained constant -- about 34 percent -- though the overall number of injuries and illnesses has decreased.

The business community said it wasn't that focused on the proposed rules OSHA axed but wanted to prevent new regulations. And groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been unhappy that the safety regulators issued citations for ergonomic violations under a broad enforcement authority. Since Congress killed the ergo rule two years ago, OSHA has opened cases against seven companies for ergonomic-related violations.

Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits for the chamber, called the trend troubling. "The agency has aggressively pursued ergonomics citations . . . demanding abatement measures that sound much like the repealed regulation and micromanaging targeted employers with a laundry list of requirements. Despite what the unions may allege, our life with OSHA has been no rose garden."