By Jeffrey Krasner

It was the classic small business regulatory horror story:

A company had installed a new piece of equipment. Seeking to ensure that the machinery met safety rules, the president called the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

OSHA inspectors approved the new equipment -- and then slapped the firm with thousands of dollars in fines for minor infractions, such as the placement of an electrical box.

Peter W. Barca almost winces as he relates what happened to a business owner he knew. But now he's working to prevent similar problems. As the new National Ombudsman for the U.S. Small Business Administration, Barca is working with 10 regional regulatory fairness boards to ensure that small firms don't get big-footed by government agencies.

"There's a new cop on the beat watching what agencies do," said Barca, meeting last week with the New England Regulatory Fairness Board. The former Wisconsin congressman and SBA Midwest regional chief added: "We're trying to change the culture of the bureacracy."

"Our goal is to help small businesses comply, but to get away from the heavy-handed role of assessing huge fines for minor violations."

Some board members felt the changes were long overdue. "I participated in the White House conference on small business in 1986," said Judith H. Obermayer, president of her own technology consulting firm in Newton, "but the regulatory flexibility act that resulted from that had no teeth in it."

In contrast, she said, the new law lets small businesses sue government agencies if they excessively enforce federal rules. Barca, as ombudsman, is empowered to deal directly with government agencies which businesses feel have acted unfairly.

"This is a terrific step forward," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the senior democrat on the Senate Small Business Committee. "We want to reach out as much as we can to tell people that there's a mechanism that will fight for them now."

The fairness boards are intended to help small firms that have problems with rules administered by the Agriculture Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the IRS, Department of Labor, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

A complaint form can be obtained by calling (888) REG-FAIR. Information on the program is available at the SBA home page: http:--www.sba.gov.