A Republican proposal to overhaul federal workplace safety rules could exempt three out of every four employers from random inspections, Democrats and labor unions argued Wednesday.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the proposed exemptions could deny Occupational Safety and Health Administration protections for as many as 40 million workers.
"Inspections and strong enforcement have led to significant decreases in job fatalities and injuries," Sweeney said in a written statement distributed at a Senate committee hearing. "This progress would be reversed and more workers could be killed or injured."
The bill's Republican supporters, including Sens. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, argue that the bill aims to cut red tape and end federal inspection quotas, and that workers will still be protected from injury.
"No one would want to do away with worker health and safety," said Kassebaum, chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, during a joint hearing on the issue with the Small Business Committee, chaired by Bond.
Unions object to the part of the Senate bill that would exempt an employer from inspections if it has 10 or fewer employees and a good safety record, if it hires an outside consultant to certify its safety protections or if its injury rate is below the average for its particular industry.
Opponents say this last provision could jeopardize safety in inherently dangerous industries such as meatpacking.
"This bill gets OSHA out of the business of inspecting our nation's worst violators of health and safety laws," said Deborah Berkowitz, a safety official with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
Bond said that OSHA currently has only about 1,000 inspectors, far too few to conduct meaningful random inspections. He said OSHA will still inspect work sites based on employee complaints or accidents and that hiring consultants will lead to better safety.
"No one can know how many employers will be exempted because we don't know which employers will take these affirmative actions," Bond said. "This is more than employers do now. At least employers will have incentives."
Kassebaum said one of the main GOP goals is to end the practice of rating OSHA's performance based on how many citations its inspectors issue. The bill would steer OSHA toward issuing warnings instead.
No vote was taken Wednesday on the Senate bill. Its House counterpart, which has drawn even more labor union fire, also has yet to come to a committee vote.