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Here in Washington, congressional Republicans are promising to scrub the government for what they say are job-killing regulations. One of their primary targets is the Occupational and Safety Health Administration, or OSHA. Republicans say OSHA enacts expensive rules without regard to their effect on business. And they propose cutting its budget this year by 20 percent. The agency's director says that reduction would be devastating to its efforts to protect worker safety.

NPR's Brian Naylor has the story.

BRIAN NAYLOR: OSHA has long been on the front edge of the divide between labor and management, and Democrats and Republicans. Where during the Bush administration the agency stressed voluntary compliance with worker safety standards on the part of business, the Obama administration stepped up enforcement. It hired more inspectors and increased OSHA's budget.

Now, Republicans in control of the House are trying to push the pendulum back. As part of their drive to cut some $61 billion from federal spending in the current fiscal year, they've targeted OSHA for a $99 million reduction.

OSHA administrator David Michaels.

Mr. DAVID MICHAELS (Administrator, OSHA): The Republicans have proposed a 20 percent cut and given half the year's over, that really means a 40 percent cut. It would really have a devastating effect on all of our activities.

NAYLOR: Peg Seminario, the safety and health director of the AFL-CIO, agrees. She says the Republicans' proposed cuts would diminish the agency's staffing and abilities.

Ms. PEG SEMINARIO (Safety and Health Director, AFL-CIO): We now have a much bigger workforce than we had 40 years ago when OSHA was started. But they would propose to slash the agency, slash enforcement, slash standards-setting, leaving the agency essentially crippled and unable to do its job to protect workers.

NAYLOR: Republicans argue that OSHA's stepped-up enforcement threatens jobs. At a recent hearing on the issue, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, Michigan Republican Tim Walberg, questioned the agency's priorities.

Representative TIM WALBERG (Republican, Michigan): Over the last two years, OSHA has not only attempted to implement several policy changes that would have profound impact on the workplace, it has become an administration more focused on punishment than prevention. Our goal should be to prevent workplace accidents before they happen, not simply shame an employer once a tragedy has occurred on the job site.

NAYLOR: One of the biggest areas of contention has been ergonomic standards. In 2000, in the final weeks of the Clinton administration, OSHA issued an ergonomics rule to set standards for workplaces for repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. The next year, the GOP-controlled Congress repealed the standard.

Now the two sides are scrapping over ergonomics again. This time, OSHA wants employers to record instances of repetitive motion injuries in a log most businesses already keep.

Joe Trauger, a vice president at the National Association of Manufacturers, calls the recording proposal problematic.

Mr. JOE TRAUGER (Vice President, National Association of Manufacturers): It's very difficult for an employer to discern whether or not an injury actually occurred in the workplace or if it occurred outside the workplace. Because the definitions were expanded to such a degree that if a person felt like they had a muscle soreness, that would be a reportable incident. Well, it may not have anything to do with what actually happens in the workplace.

NAYLOR: Michaels at OSHA says the repetitive motion proposal has been misunderstood and that the agency has decided to further explain the requirement before implementing it. He says the agency always looks at the cost of complying with its rules and invites comments on its proposals before implementing them. He says OSHA can protect jobs and workers at the same time.

Mr. MICHAELS: We believe we can do both. We know that OSHA doesn't kill jobs. It stops jobs from killing workers. When employers embrace safety, they actually save money.

NAYLOR: While fighting off cuts to this year's budget, the Obama administration has proposed increasing spending on OSHA in the next fiscal year by a bit more than four percent.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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