Stepping Into The Middle Of Osha's Muddle

Few federal agencies have careened from one ideological extreme to the other more than the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Under the heavy hand of Democratic regulators, OSHA in the 1970s provoked the ire of many employers with its slew of rules and safety standards. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, it had a hands-off approach--with the result that more work time is now lost to injuries, on a per-employee basis, than 20 years ago.

President Clinton promises to stabilize OSHA squarely in the ideological middle. Despite Clinton's campaign debt to unions, Labor Dept. officials say they hope to develop innovative ways to improve worker protection while also giving employers more leeway in meeting safety standards. On July 2, Clinton said he would hand that delicate task to Joseph A. Dear, a former head of Washington State's Labor & Industries Dept., who got the nod for OSHA director over several union candidates. Dear "has a record of bringing everyone to the table and getting consensus," says Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich. "I don't think we can make progress unless we get the business community on board."

The challenges facing OSHA will test Dear's skills. Years of budget slashing have pared the agency's compliance staff by 25%, to 1,120. An antiquated computer system has left it unable to target worksites with the greatest safety risks. And in 1992, a federal court overturned OSHA's plan to set exposure standards for some 400 toxic substances, undermining its ability to protect workers.

The biggest potential dilemma for Dear may be how to manage a sweeping overhaul of safety laws proposed by liberal Democrats (table). The bill's most controversial feature: Employers with 11 or more workers would have to form joint labor/management safety and health committees with elected employee representatives. The Administration hasn't taken a stance on the bill, which advocates say would promote the labor/management cooperation that Clinton favors. Many executives oppose it as a "sham for union organizing," says Peter J. Eide, a human-resources expert at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Dear, 42, declined to be interviewed before the Senate vote on his appointment, which hasn't been scheduled. But his record in Washington State shows how his views have evolved over time--and provides clues to how he would run the agency. He started out as a liberal activist, founding a group at age 26 that for four years crusaded--with no success--to make the state tax system more progressive by creating an income tax. He later worked for the state chapter of the AFL-CIO before becoming a centrist bent on making creaking bureaucracies more efficient. That will be one of his top priorities at OSHA, a change both business and labor would welcome.

Along the way, Dear developed a reputation for being able to bring labor and business together. In 1985, he became assistant and heir apparent to Richard A. Davis, head of the state's Labor Dept. The two set out to overhaul the state workers' compensation insurance program, which was $225 million in the red despite premium hikes of nearly 50% over two years. Davis, a former U.S. West Inc. executive, lobbied business to swallow yet another rate increase, of 18%. And Dear persuaded labor to agree to $79 million in annual savings by, for instance, reducing costly vocational-rehabilitation payments.

"BUSINESS APPROACH." Dear continued the effort when he took over from Davis in 1987. He persuaded state lawmakers to spend $40 million for a modern computer system. The agency then developed data bases to spot emerging injury trends and speed up claims processing, which got workers back on the job more quickly. Dear also required employers to pay insurance premiums based on their own safety records rather than on an industry average. The result of his and Davis' initiatives: The workers' comp fund reached solvency in three years and today enjoys a $350 million surplus. Workers got improved benefits and employers' costs were cut. "Joe was the first director to bring a business approach to the department," says Michael Sotelo, the safety director at Seattle-based W.G. Clark Construction Co.

State workers' comp problems may be narrower in scope than national safety issues, but they're no less thorny. If Dear can replicate in the other Washington what he achieved in his home state, business and unions may no longer consider OSHA a four-letter word.

      STANDARDS The Occupational Safety & Health Administration plans to develop 
      limits on how long workers can be exposed to toxic substances
      LAWS A bill in Congress would allow workers to refuse risky tasks and require 
      companies to form labor/management safety committees
      ENFORCEMENT The agency is expected to stiffen civil penalties for safety 
      violations and seek criminal sanctions for management negligence