Workers deserve safe, healthy environments

Published 12:02 am Wednesday, March 8, 2017

By Rep. Bradley Byrne

American workers deserve responsible, commonsense policies to ensure safe and healthy working conditions. They deserve a federal government that holds bad actors accountable, and a government that takes proactive steps to help employers improve safety protections and prevent injuries and illnesses before they occur.

For years, Republicans have called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to reject a top-down approach to worker protections and instead, collaborate with employers to identify gaps in safety and address the unique challenges facing modern workplaces. Unfortunately, under the Obama Administration, our concerns primarily fell on deaf ears.

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With this in mind, I recently introduced legislation designed to prevent a regulatory power grab by the federal government. While this regulation claimed to be focused on workers’ safety, it would have done absolutely nothing to improve workplace safety. Let me explain.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act regulations, employers have long been required to record injuries and illnesses and retain those records for five years. The law explicitly provides a six-month window under which OSHA can issue citations to employers who fail to maintain proper records. This approach helps ensure workplace hazards are addressed in a timely manner.

However, in 2006, OSHA took action against Volks Constructors for recordkeeping errors that occurred well beyond what the law allows. The errors were from nearly five years earlier. It should not take OSHA years to do their job.

That is why a federal appeals court unanimously rejected OSHA’s overreach. The opinion for the court stated: “We do not believe Congress expressly established a statute of limitations only to implicitly encourage the Secretary to ignore it.” Even President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Garland, agreed OSHA’s action was “not reasonable.”

What came next was an outright power grab. OSHA decided to take its unlawful action one step further. This time it would not only ignore the law, but rewrite it. The agency finalized the “Volks” rule this past December, unilaterally extending the statute of limitations from six months to five years.

The agency created significant regulatory confusion for small businesses. I often hear from small businesses here in Southwest Alabama that are already struggling with confusing regulations and red tape. This new rule would only further add to the confusion and compliance costs.

Under this regulation, many businesses would likely face unwarranted lawsuits because of this unlawful regulation. Of course, further judicial scrutiny also means hardworking taxpayers will foot the bill when OSHA is forced to defend its lawless power grab once again.

Simply put, OSHA had no authority to do this. We have a Constitution that grants Congress — not federal agencies — the power to write the law.

Maintaining injury and illness records is vitally important and can help enhance worker protections, but that is not the goal of this rule. This rule only serves to punish employers. Instead of punitive regulations, OSHA should instead collaborate with employers to help them understand their legal responsibilities and ensure safety measures are in place to prevent workplace hazards in the future.

Thankfully, the House passed my bill to block this unlawful regulation last week by a vote of 231-191. This was a major victory for those of us who are focused on ensuring the law is followed. President (Donald) Trump has indicated he supports my bill and is ready to sign it into law. I hope the Senate will act swiftly, so the President can sign my bill.

Rest assured, I will continue working to improve workplace safety while also standing up against executive overreach.