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|Congress Seeks to Protect Emergency
Volunteers from Liability
The U.S. House Judiciary Committee has approved a bill granting legal immunity to volunteers performing relief services during and after declared national emergencies, such as the hurricanes Wilma and Katrina. The Disaster Relief Volunteer Protection Act of 2006 is meant to clear up the uncertainty among potential volunteers, corpor- ations, and nonprofit organizations about whether they might be held liable for any unintended mistakes in assisting survivors or in cleanup efforts.
The legislation provides that volunteers and their employers, as well as any organizations that assist or support volunteers and nonprofit organizations, cannot be sued for any injury or harm that they cause in providing assistance in connection with a natural or other disaster, except for harm caused by willful, wanton, or reckless misconduct.
Association Health Insurance Plans Struggle
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has approved legislation that would allow small businesses and associations to pool their members together to create Small Business Health Plans on a regional or a national basis. Such plans are currently infeasible because each state has its own laws mandating certain kinds of coverage. But it is the possibility of health insurance plans that are exempt from state mandates that also is the source of very strong opposition from consumer and other groups.
H1-B Visa Increase Stalled
Efforts to increase the number of available H1-B visas, once seen as on the fast track in Congress, have been stalled due to the inclusion of a proposed increase in omnibus immigration legislation. The bipartisan support on the H1-B visa issue has been lacking on immigration issues generally. Current proposals would increase the H1-B visa cap from 65,000 to 115,000 or 120,000 in 2007 and then allow the cap to increase by 15-20% annually following a year in which the cap is reached.
OSHA Inspection Activity
Remains Vigorous The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) continues to maintain its high level of annual inspection activity. In fiscal year 2005, OSHA conducted 38,714 total inspections, exceeding its goal of 37,700. Unprogrammed inspections — those conducted in response to employee complaints or referrals from other agencies — also showed an increase over the previous fiscal year. This vigorous enforcement by
OSHA appears to be justified: 85,307 violations of OSHA’s standards and regulations were found in fiscal year 2005, representing a 9.5% increase since 2001. The number of willful violations increased an incredible 62% over 2004.
Congressional Veto of Agency Rules
10 Years Later
The Congressional Review Act (CRA) was passed 10 years ago as a means of allowing Congress to nullify regulations issued by a federal agency. The procedure allows nullification of a rule if the House and Senate and the President disapprove of an agency action. A final rule’s effective date is delayed for 60 days to allow Congress to challenge. Further, once a rule is cancelled under the CRA, the agency cannot reenact the subject rule. This law was used for the first time soon after it was enacted to void controversial ergonomics regulations enacted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As it turns out, that was also the last time that a regulation has been vetoed by Congress. Now Congress is reexamining the law to see how to amend it to make it more effective —or wether it is effective at all.
Workplace Injury, Illness, and Fatality Rates
Continue to Decline
Workplace injuries and illnesses continued their steady decline, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The rate for 2004 (the most recent data available) was 4.8 per 100,000 workers, the lowest since the imple- mentation of OSHA’s revised recordkeeping standard in 2002. The rate of cases that resulted in lost workdays also fell again, to 2.5. The rate of fatal work injuries was 4.1 fatalities per 100,000 workers as compared to 4.0 fatalities per 100,000 workers the previous year. This represents an overall decrease of 5% since 2001.
Online Patent Application Filings Now Allowed
The United States Patent and Trademark Office has established an electronic filing system that will allow applicants to file over the Internet. The shift from a paper-based system to an electronic environment offers a number of advantages to patent filers, including allowing applicants to file applications and related documents using their existing software, submitting documents by simply attaching PDF files, and accessing applications through the Patent Application Information Retrieval (PAIR) system.