OSHA and a Chimney Rebuilder

Bill McClellan, the excellent St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, had a must-read column the other day telling the story of Gary Heffernan, a 35-year veteran of the tuckpointing (masonry repair) business, and his recent run-in with an inspector from the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The inspector wrote up Heffernan with thousands of dollars in fines, though no one had been injured and the business’s only other employee – Heffernan’s nephew – had not complained. The violations? I won’t spoil the suspense, but they included, to name one, letting the nephew work on a chimney without posted warnings of the toxic dangers of sand. [Whole column here.]

Regulatory ordeals like Heffernan’s may soon become much more frequent and more likely to imperil business survival, under proposed legislation that would greatly expand OSHA’s authority [GovTrack/Thomas; Chamber letter in opposition]. Here’s a description from J.L. Wilson of Associated Oregon Industries:

HR 5663, also known as the Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010, included dramatic changes to OSHA’s enforcement procedures, penalties, abatement and whistleblower provisions. The proposed changes were extremely costly to implement, difficult to administer, created more conflict in the workplace, and encouraged lawsuits. For example, HR 5663 imposed new and vague standards for criminal liability, including felony criminal sanctions against “any company officer or director” for “knowing” violations of OSHA. The bill; however, provided no definition of “knowing,” nor did it provide any limitation or guidance on which “officers or directors” could face criminal charges.

Notice the bill’s misleading name, intended to capitalize on much-publicized recent disasters in underground mines; despite this terminology, the bill would impose broad new federal regulation in workplaces of every other sort as well. And note that although Wilson used the past tense in his account, the bill is very much alive: following hearings before the House Education and Labor Committee it cleared the committee late last month and now heads for the House floor.