OSHA Needs Muscle to Reduce on-the-Job Injuries

A new team is finally leading the nation's losing battle to reduce the appalling number of on-the-job injuries, illnesses and deaths suffered by American workers.

But don't expect miracles from them alone--even more urgently needed are an overhaul of the 1970 law governing workplace safety and more money for enforcement.

Still, it is encouraging to know that for the first time since the Carter Administration, the top officers of the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration appear to be sincerely interested in enforcing the law--a refreshing change from the negligent enforcement practices of the past nine years.

The agency's new leaders are two knowledgeable men: Gerard Scannell, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, and his deputy, Alan McMillan.

Scannell's appointment was delayed until a few weeks ago, reportedly because President Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, wanted a more conservative person for the job. But Labor Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole's choice was Scannell, and fortunately she won the argument.

Scannell and McMillan are not expected to be as pro-worker as Eula Bingham, OSHA's chief under former President Jimmy Carter. But they are experienced and will add a measure of toughness to the agency's enforcement effort.

The size of the problem facing OSHA is quickly told: The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated two weeks ago that last year 6.2 million workers were injured on the job, 3,300 were killed, and there were 240,000 new cases of illness. The BLS admits that its estimates are unrealistically low, yet even so, the numbers are up significantly from those of previous years.

Many of these tragedies could have been prevented if the health and safety law were tougher and adequately enforced. Congress is considering a variety of measures to strengthen OSHA, including one essential proposal that would require all companies to create joint labor-management safety and health committees.

Such committees would vastly expand the effectiveness of OSHA by, in effect, putting an inspection team in every workplace in America. No matter how diligent OSHA's new leaders are, they cannot possibly expect their fewer than 1,000 inspectors to find and correct unsafe job conditions in about 6 million workplaces, observes Margaret Seminario, the AFL-CIO occupational health and safety director.

Seminario, whose expertise is widely recognized, says not only must OSHA's staff and budget be substantially increased, but penalties levied against employers who maintain unsafe working conditions must be raised.

And OSHA cannot adequately enforce the law simply by publicizing a few large fines against employers as warnings to the rest of the country's employers.

The recent record $7.3-million fine against USX Corp. for more than 1,000 "willful" health and safety violations does help call public attention to the magnitude of the problem.

But the real problem is that the maximum fine per violation is $10,000, meaning that multiple violations, perhaps even hundreds, have to be uncovered before a meaningful fine can be levied. There is little deterrent value in the current system unless a health and safety problem becomes tragically large.

Congress ought to raise fines for individual violations to a far higher level.

Because of OSHA's small inspection staff, most hazardous workplaces go unnoticed by the government.

During the Administration of Ronald Reagan, OSHA fell on hard times. Its budget was slashed, and companies were only scolded--and not severely--when a diminishing number of OSHA investigators uncovered sloppy company safety practices that kill or injure millions of workers each year.

Generally, the Bush Administration hasn't shown much more interest than the Reagan Administration in the problems of workers.

Secretary Dole herself isn't doing much for workers, but at least she sounds sympathetic to them when she talks about job safety. She says, for example: "I truly believe there needs to be a rededication to the goal of assuring that every working man and woman works in a safe and healthy workplace."

And one concrete step toward that goal was her success in getting the new OSHA leaders into place. However, it isn't clear how far they will be allowed to go by the conservative Bush Administration, or even how far they will be able to go without major improvements in the health and safety law itself and more money from Congress.

But every little bit helps, and McMillan, the generally admired deputy labor secretary for OSHA, said in an interview that the agency is already becoming "more aggressive in enforcement of health and safety laws." He seemed to surprise himself when he added that, "We are now willing to say publicly that we do need more money and manpower" to make OSHA effective.

He credits Dole for making that point strongly to the White House, despite Bush's "no new taxes" refrain. There is no indication, though, that her advice will be heeded.

McMillan said that in the past month or so, the agency has added 179 new positions, a 14% increase. That didn't even restore the 25% cut OSHA suffered under Reagan, but it is a sign of good faith, and McMillan agrees more is needed.

Another sign, so far only verbal: McMillan wants more frequent, vigorous "wall-to-wall" inspections of particularly dangerous plants such as those producing chemicals. Now, owners of a high-risk plant face a thorough inspection less than once in a decade, if that often.

Better enforcement of health and safety laws is important, but even more crucial is for Congress to overhaul the 19-year-old law if it really wants to stop the gruesome mayhem in the workplace.

Workers need to learn more about their own essential role in protecting themselves on the job, and Dole and OSHA's new leaders must follow through on their promises to enforce America's health and safety laws.

But it is up to Congress to give them a law with teeth.

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