When the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association, the trade group for the nation's 8,000 lumber dealers, sought guidance from federal trucking regulators two years ago on how to comply with a new safety rule, they were told to check a Canadian Web site or hire outside companies for compliance help.
The dealers were frustrated with what they considered complicated rulemakings and the lack of clear, concise direction from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. "There's not enough time in the day for a small business to make a profit and read 100 or 150 pages of a rule," said Thomas J. Cantwell, director of regulatory and industry affairs for the dealers' association.
So the group proposed an "alliance" with the regulator, one similar to an agreement it made in 2003 with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And the truck-safety agency was receptive to the idea.
The alliance is a first for FMCSA, but such agreements between regulators and industry groups have been growing in recent years. The Bush administration has stressed cooperation over confrontation and has tried to help companies comply with rules rather than play "gotcha" after an infringement.
The Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mine Safety and Health Administration have pursued a variety of collaborative relationships with businesses they regulate.
Critics say the efforts replace rulemaking and divert resources from enforcement.
"There is no substance to alliances. They have taken the place of standards and making rules," Jordan Barab, former OSHA special assistant who runs a blog on OSHA-related health and safety issues.
The alliance approach sits well with the lumber dealers. They said their partnership with OSHA has been successful, and they expect similar results with the truck-safety agency. The emphasis of each alliance is to help lumber and building-material dealers comply with rules through the use of training materials and other educational information.
For example, as part of its alliance with OSHA, the agency sponsors a safety and health Web page for lumber dealers. "A small lumberyard in Oklahoma can go there and it's industry-specific to them," said John Smith, risk manager for the Foxworth-Galbraith Lumber Co. in Dallas, who was instrumental in setting up both alliances.
The agreements give business a more direct line to a regulator. For example, the lumber dealers -- who have high rates of injuries and illness -- say they get a chance to stress the their side of the story at OSHA.
The trigger for the FMCSA agreement was the request for clarification of a new rule on how to tie down, or secure, cargo on truck beds. Over the past two years, the association exchanged letters and e-mail with agency officials, pressing the agency for guidance.
" . . . We do not believe it is fair or appropriate to require compliance with new regulations without the proper provision of information and training material to the affected industries," said a Dec. 1, 2003, letter from the lumber dealers to the FMCSA administrator, Annette Sandberg.
The agreement signed July 26 takes a page out of OSHA's book. In fact, the language used in the "memorandum of understanding" is much the same as that in the OSHA agreement, Smith said.
The agency made clear in a written statement that it views the alliance as a way to "promote driver and highway safety" but stressed that it doesn't affect inspections, enforcement or endorsement of any industry products or services.
The alliance program was created at OSHA in 2002, and there are now 349 of them, including ones with the National Chicken Council and Dow Chemical Co. Alliances are regional or national in scope and concentrate on outreach and education as a way of "promoting the national dialogue on workplace safety and health," according to OSHA.
A growing number of companies, nonprofit groups and trade associations like the arrangements. Supporters say they are a way to leverage OSHA's limited resources and create a less adversarial relationship between business and the agency.
Paula White, head of OSHA's cooperative and state programs, said the agency has maintained a consistent level of enforcement effort and inspections. She said only a small number of OSHA employees work full-time on cooperative programs.
White said the idea is to "explode our potential to reach larger groups" with partnerships and alliances.
FMCSA said it is not in talks for any other alliances. But there is now guidance on its Web site on how to comply with the cargo rule, which was developed with Canadian input.