No letup on worker safety

If any federal agency in Washington has borne the brunt of public criticism over the years, it has been the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a Labor Department office charged with protecting workers from job-related safety and health hazards. Usually that criticism has come from industrial firms smarting from OSHA inspections. With the election of a business-oriented Republican president, however, the concerns now come from organized labor and public-interest groups, which allege that OSHA is too lax in drafting health standards pertaining to hazardous substances.

Given the importance of OSHA, Congress should consider a major review of the agency to ensure that it is fulfilling its proper mandate. The agency itself should welcome the opportunity to establish why such criticisms are groundless, if that is the case.

What gives logic to such an inquiry at this time are recent statements by the head of OSHA, Thorne G. Auchter, confirming that OSHA will now rely on the regular rule-making process for issuing new health standards rather than issue ''emergency'' regulations, as the agency is empowered to do and in past years did. Thus, the regular rule-making process is now under way for eventual standards pertaining to ethylene oxide and ethylene dibromide. OSHA also plans to develop a regular rule pertaining to benzene.

Seeking regular rules can take up to 30 months or more. An emergency rule, by contrast, can be posted immediately and used as a prod to gain a permanent rule.

Is the agency right in going the regular rule-making route rather than issuing emergency rules, as sought by labor? Mr. Auchter makes a strong case that emergency rules should be announced only in extreme circumstances. He also notes that OSHA's record in posting emergency standards has been poor. Of some eight emergency rules announced by the agency, five were challenged in litigation and four subsequently overturned.

What is of concern, however, is that the agency has not announced any permanent new health standard that was not in the planning stage before the changeover in administrations back in 1981. To its credit, OSHA has been more successful in carefully targeting safety inspections in specific industries where health and safety records have been the worst. That contrasts with a scattershot inspection process during the Carter years, when OSHA inspectors tended to pop up at any firm at any time.

Business and labor have a common interest in comprehensive - and fair - health and safety standards for the American workplace. Congress has an interest in seeing that OSHA performs its task.

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