It is anticipated that American businesses will see tougher inspections and higher fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") and the Mine Safety and Health Administration ("MSHA") under President-elect Obama. All signs point to a markedly different relationship between the Department of Labor and employers on workplace safety issues.
Occupational safety was not a significant issue in the 2008 presidential election, and Obama's "Blueprint for Change" does not address workplace safety.
However, in his 2004 Senatorial campaign, Obama expressed support for reviving the OSHA ergonomics standard and said he would work "to require employers to keep records of repetitive stress disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome." During the presidential campaign, Obama called for a "reinvigorated" OSHA.
In addition to revisiting the ergonomics issue, Obama supports increasing OSHA funding, expanding OSHA coverage to all public employees, and requiring employers to pay for personal protective equipment. Employers can expect to see not only an increase in willful citations being issued by OSHA, but Congress is expected to reintroduce the "Protecting America's Workers Act," which would establish criminal penalties for employers whose workers are killed or seriously injured on the job.
After significant changes to the Mine Safety and Health Act following the Sago and Crandall Canyon disasters (which included substantial increases in monetary penalties for operators), we have seen an increasingly aggressive MSHA over the last two years. President-elect Obama, however, has promised to take even tougher measures than what was promulgated under the Bush Administration. In a recent letter to the American Federation of Government Employees, Obama offered the following assessment of President Bush's mine safety policies:
"As you know, one of the worst disasters of the Bush Administration has been the Department's failure to ensure mine safety. In my Department of Labor, the Administrator of Mine Safety and Health will be an advocate for miners' safety and health, not for the mining companies' bottom lines. Our mine safety program will have the staffing and the enforcement tools needed to get the job done."
During his second term, President Bush vetoed a $10 million increase in spending at MSHA. This had been proposed by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) to address concerns that MSHA was not meeting its statutory inspection requirements. Such legislation will almost certainly meet a different fate under President-elect Obama and the increased Democratic majorities in the 111th Congress. Over the next four years, mine operators should expect the hiring of more inspectors, more supervisory oversight of inspections by field and district offices, more citations, and increased enforcement.