The new administration has had much on its plate since January, with failing banks and car companies and the credit crunch, not to mention health care, but there are changes afoot for employers with regard to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as well. President Obama nominated California U.S. Representative Hilda Solis as his Secretary of Labor, and Ms. Solis is considered to be friendly to labor unions and workers. Her nomination was widely praised by the AFL-CIO. This summer, the President also nominated Professor David Michaels of George Washington University as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. Professor Michaels has been quoted in the Newsletter of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety as stating that "OSHA badly needs a change in direction and philosophy...to change the workplace culture of safety." What do these nominations, and these types of statements, mean for Ohio employers?

It is safe to say that the relaxed level of enforcement of the last eight years is a thing of the past. OSHA's enforcement budget has been increased by 10% and it has been reported that as many as 150 new inspectors will be hired in fiscal year 2010. Clearly, increased inspections will be the norm in the coming years. With more inspections come more penalties, and a cursory look at recent citations seems to indicate that higher penalties will be issued as well. It is also expected that more rulemaking will be on the way from OSHA, so employers are urged to stay informed for rules that may affect their business.

In April, the House introduced the "Protecting America's Workers Act" which includes various provisions to reform OSHA. Some of the highlights of the Act are the expansion of OSHA coverage to include:

  • employees of state and local political subdivisions;
  • raising penalties and indexing them for inflation;
  • establishing mandatory minimum penalties in situations of worker deaths;
  • allowing felony prosecutions against employers who commit willful violations that result in serious bodily injury and death;
  • expanding whistleblower protections for workers; and
  • granting more rights to workers, and their families to be involved in the OSHA process.

OSHA is also moving to enact new rules involving the exposure of workers to silica, diacetyl (a flavoring additive linked to "popcorn lung"), and beryllium. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is considering the increased monitoring of dust in coal mines. Further, OSHA wants to take a serious look at the issue of combustible dust which will affect many Ohio industries, such as paper, rubber, textiles, food, tobacco, wood, plastics, rubber, furniture, and many others. Finally, it is expected that the Agency's proposed ergonomic standards to address repetitive stress injuries will make a comeback, as will increased enforcement by OSHA inspectors and their use of the "general duty clause" to cite employers who did not take reasonable steps to remedy a hazard if the employer knew of the problem.