In a sweeping and controversial change, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health officials will offer exemptions from surprise inspections to those employers who develop their own in-house inspection and safety programs.
MOSH officials said they expect to formally inaugurate the program -- which has been given a three-month trial at a Southern Maryland construction site -- within the next few days.
"We're going to change directions," said John P. O'Connor, commissioner of state's Labor Division, which oversees MOSH. "We're going to assist businesses instead of smacking somebody on the hands."
The program drew praise from employers, who said it could attract more businesses to Maryland. Union leaders, however, warned that the state may be endangering workers.
The first exemption will go to the construction division of Raytheon Co. at a power plant construction site in Brandywine, in Prince George's County. In return, the state will require the company to run its own safety program for its approximately 180 construction workers, state and company officials said.
MOSH officials said they are initially considering proposals to exempt at least one other construction firm and seven manufacturers from the surprise inspection program, which has long been the agency's main enforcement tool. The program drew rave reviews from business leaders.
"If we can make an announcement like this, that Maryland is becoming a business-friendly state, there's a real potential for recruiting new businesses" to the state, said Alex Doyle, head of the Maryland Manufacturing Association.
Mr. Doyle, owner of a Baltimore machine shop -- one of seven that has requested one of the new exemptions -- said the new program could give him "peace of mind."
His Micro-Machining Inc. had a "surprise MOSH inspection two years ago. It was not fun."
He had to take time off work to appeal violations found by the inspector, he recalled, calling the experience "a hassle."
Mr. Doyle said the exemption program would save him money and improve safety, because he and six other manufacturers have formed a workers' compensation insurance cooperative and have hired a private safety inspector.
The private inspector will do more to improve safety than a random state inspection every few years, he said.
But union representatives said they are alarmed by the state's decision to relinquish what they believe is its best tool for catching workplace dangers.
Bill Kaczarowski, head of the Baltimore area Building Trades Council, said the problem is that safety conditions change every minute on construction sites.
"There are rules and regulations on proper building procedure for scaffolds, but if someone is trying to cut corners and puts fewer boards on it, somebody could get injured," he said.
The best way to enforce safety regulations, he said, is "to go out and bang the guy violating the law."
The self-inspection program "is a way to cut costs at the expense of the poor working guy out there," he warned.
Mr. O'Connor said MOSH will exempt only those companies with good safety records and proven joint worker-management safety programs.
MOSH staffers will visit the exempt sites every quarter or so -- jTC and after every major accident -- to ensure the programs are working.
They will revoke the exemptions of employers who don't protect their workers, he said.