Safety at work: fewer rules needed?

US senators and congressmen are trapped in the middle of a showdown between big business and big labor over the effectiveness of government safety and health regulations.

The dispute could become a hot political issue in a year when congressional candidates are seeking support at the polls from both of these groups.

Proposed legislation would curb the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government agency charged with setting policy and promoting programs to protect the safety and health of workers. The bill's sponsors are urging a new approach that would discard what Richard L. Lesher, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, calls "a police effort in every workplace."

The Carter administration and organized labor want OSHA continued in its present statutory form. Lane Kirkland, president of the 13.6 million-member AFL-CIO, considers the law one of the most important protections for US workers.

Although the issue ostensibly is what business calls the "adversary" or "police" approach toward enforcement taken by OSHA, Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R) of New York, who supports the existing law, warns that its opponents are really seeking to "put OSHA out of business."

The Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1971 and came under immediate criticism as it developed complex and exhaustive regulations for workplaces. Some gained widespread notoriety, such as a requirement to provide clothes hooks for restrooms. Business and other critics call the burdensome minor regulations "nitpicking" and examples of excessive government regulation.

After the first few years, OSHA's focus shifted more to important health and safety problems, but business has not changed its assessment of the agency as the No. 1 scourge among all federal regulators. Business complains of the overzealousness of the safety inspectors and the enforcement of what employers consider unnecessary and unreasonable regulations.

"There has been no solid documentation that OSHA has yielded any gains in safety and health," Mr. Lesher told a Senate committee hearing recently. "Since 1971 serious injury and illness rates have increased dramatically both in number and severity." He called OSHA "at best . . . a major disappointment, at worst a dismal failure."

The Carter administration and the AFL-CIO, using the same statistics, counter-argue that OSHA has prevented thousands of deaths and injuries during its first nine years.

Business has spent an estimated $25 billion to comply with OSHA regulations, and some employers have shut down operations -- idling thousands of workers -- saying that meeting OSHA rules would have been impossible or excessively costly.

The proposed legislation, which has the backing of some labor friends such as Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey, would exempt about 90 percent of the nation's workplaces from safety inspection. OSHA checks would be allowed only when a serious accident occurs.

Sen. Richard S. Schweiker (R) of Pennsylvania, original sponsor of the legislation, says this change would make business rely more on its own safety and health inspections, often carried out in cooperation with unions, and it would give employers more flexibility in achieving safer conditions. For instance, he says, OSHA often requires costly engineering changes to meet safety standards when an employer may feel that personal protective equipment would be just as safe and less costly.

ane Kirkland of AFL-CIO and other union spokesmen argue that widespread inspections, as now made, prevent situations that could cause serious injuries or death. It is too late to wait for safety checks until after something happens, Mr. Kirkland says.

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