DOL defends partnership program in court

The U.S. Department of Labor is still fighting for its Cooperative Compliance Program, over the protests of some business leaders who say the program is too punitive and vindictive. The department went to court recently to defend the program. Department representatives called it an effective way to target the most dangerous job sites in America for inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The Cooperative Compliance Program would let employers with the highest injury and illness rates choose between traditional enforcement or partnership with OSHA to reduce hazards and improve workplace safety and health. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, PhD, told the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, that labor partnerships are good for employers while allowing OSHA to make the best use of resources. Among other benefits, employers save workers’ compensation costs and cut the likelihood of OSHA penalties, she said.

Most employers greeted the Cooperative Compliance Program with enthusiasm, but some others blocked its implementation with the lawsuit. In November 1997, OSHA invited 12,000 employers with injury and illness rates double the national average or higher to join the Cooperative Compliance Program.

More than 10,000, or 87%, accepted. OSHA called the partnership program a significant step in the agency’s effort to work cooperatively with business, rather than perpetuating an image of the dreaded enforcer, and most employers seemed to agree.

But in February 1998, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, to block implementation of the program.

The court granted a stay of the program until it heard oral arguments and reached a decision. Since February, OSHA has pursued an interim enforcement plan that allows targeting of high-hazard work sites but does not offer partnerships to interested employers. The court has not indicated when a decision will be handed down.