The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) came in for blistering criticism from House Republicans at a hearing Wednesday, as Democrats defended the agency’s work in the face of underfunding.
Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Education & the Workforce Committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee, started the hearing by mentioning that OSHA head Douglas Parker ran California’s OSHA office — also known as Cal OSHA — during the first 2 years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In June 2021, Cal OSHA proposed a rule that employees could go without masks in the workplace if and only if every worker present was vaccinated,” said Kiley. “So a single identified unvaccinated employee would cause all employees to have to wear masks … The rule was so widely criticized that Cal OSHA reversed itself the following week, but still forced employers to collect vaccination information from employees.”
“It was indicative of the uncertainty and irrationality that marked the COVID experience for businesses and workers in the state,” he continued, adding that shortly after Parker was sworn into his current position, “OSHA published an emergency rule on workplace COVID-19 vaccination. The rule required employers with a total of 100 or more employees to develop, implement, and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy. Within 2 months, the Supreme Court ruled that OSHA had exceeded its authority in an unprecedented way.”
Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.) also lambasted Parker for the COVID emergency rule, which would have affected 84 million workers. “Now you want to tell Americans which Big Pharma shots they must take,” she said. “I’m going to introduce amendments to strip you of your power and funding to protect the 84 million Americans who do not want to show you their vaccine papers … OSHA needs to be reined in. They have gone far beyond their minor, limited mission.”
But Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, defended the agency. “There’s no question that OSHA is our nation’s main line of defense against unsafe working conditions,” she said. “In the 53 years since OSHA was created in 1970, worker injuries have fallen significantly and deaths from acute traumatic injuries have likewise come down sharply. Unfortunately, too many workers continue to be injured, made ill, or killed on the job.”
Because of chronic underfunding of OSHA by Congress, workers “are losing their lives to preventable hazards,” said Adams. “Since fiscal year 2010, funding for OSHA has dropped by nearly 20% and in 2021, the number of OSHA inspectors was already near its lowest level ever … It is disappointing to hear my colleagues proclaim that they care about workplace safety and then push for legislation like the Nullify Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act” which would abolish the agency. And proposed Republican budget cuts “would slash OSHA’s budget by 22%, causing OSHA to lose at least 270 inspectors and conduct 10,800 fewer inspections,” she said.
Parker, the hearing’s lone witness, appeared unruffled during the proceedings. When Miller accused Parker of ignoring the Supreme Court and continuing “to press companies to fire American workers,” Parker responded, “That’s categorically untrue. We didn’t threaten anyone and we didn’t demand that anyone be fired … Congresswoman, I believe that the American people expect their government to take on the big problems that are facing them. More than a million people have died of COVID [in the U.S.].” Miller responded by calling Parker “inept” and adding that the rule would have “terrorized our economy.”
OSHA’s work on developing a standard to protect workers from extreme heat either indoors or outdoors also came under discussion. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) thanked Parker for his work to improve safety at warehouses and industrial facilities, noting that when he and a colleague toured a certain Massachusetts factory, “we expected to encounter a stuffy interior with all the machinery going. However, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter cool air coming from the circulated air conditioning system. This highlighted for me that really good employers know what they have to do to protect workers.”
Parker said that the agency learned from employers “that providing rest can lead to productivity gains. Workers slow down when they’re overheated, and they’re more prone to less mental focus so there’s more mistakes in their work … There’s also a lot of technical assistance that we can provide employers on how to implement a range of options” to protect workers from extreme heat, such as providing breaks for rest and water.
Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wisc.) asked Parker how much the proposed extreme heat standard would cost small businesses. “We don’t have a number on that because we haven’t written a proposal on that,” Parker said. “We have gone to the SBA [Small Business Administration] and convened a Small Business Committee and given them a range of options … so that we can get a fuller range of feedback from small business about what is practical. We’re very mindful of the costs and putting measures in place that are going to be achievable for small business.”
Grothman also returned to the vaccination rule, telling Parker that some of Grothman’s constituents told him they only got the COVID vaccine because their employer forced them to, and now they regret it. “Is that something OSHA is concerned about?” he asked.
“I’d love to hear more about that and how we can be helpful, but we’re not really engaged in active rulemaking in general workplaces on that issue,” Parker replied.
Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) asked about the potential effect a government shutdown would have on the agency, and specifically whether OSHA would still conduct routine inspections of meatpacking and poultry plants. “The short answer is no,” said Parker. Instead, the agency would be limited “to matters involving life or property — reacting to a hazard that has been reported that we have actual knowledge of, reacting to a complaint, reacting to an injury, reacting to a fatality. So we would not be doing proactive inspections.”
Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow
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