The Next OSHA: Progressive Reforms to Empower Workers

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Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act more than 40 years ago. A transformative law at the time it was passed, the OSH Act has not proved nimble enough to address the evolving challenges faced by U.S. workers. In this paper, we discuss how changes to the OSH Act and its implementing regulations and policies could better empower workers to ensure that all workers have safe and healthy workplaces. We focus on workers and their power to influence the policies that keep them safe and healthy on the job. Numerous issues affect workers’ health and safety, from workers’ compensation reform to health care policies to wage and hour problems, but we focus here on health and safety regulation by federal agencies.

Worker empowerment: We propose strenghtening education and training requirements as the first step toward empowering workers. To ensure that new knowledge and training can be put to use, we propose establishing a private right-of-action to enforce the OSH Act, much like the "citizen suit" provisions of environmental laws.

Enforcement: We urge Congress to amend the OSH Act to increase criminal fines and jail time for employers who violate the statute and its impelementing regulations. Civil enforcement could be enhanced through use of administrative compliance orders, the Responsible Corporate Officer doctrine, the Alternative Fines Act, and inflation-adjusted penalties. We also encourage OSHA to revamp its procedures for investigating fatalities and involving workers and their representatives in enforcement proceedings.

Administrative issues: Recognizing OSHA's need for additional resources, we suggest that Congress and the agency explore whether certain programs (e.g., the Voluntary Protection Program) should be funded through user fees. We also discuss OSHA's role in overseeing state-plan programs. We urge Congress to abolish the split-enforcement model that relies on the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission to adjudicate cases. Finally, we discuss reforms to the rulemaking process that would speed the development of new safety and health standards.

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Center for Progressive Reform White Paper No. 1207