US unions urge review of safety standards after disaster in India

American unions, shocked by the Union Carbide disaster in India, plan to review safety standards in the chemical industry with employers to allay concerns that such an industrial accident could happen in the United States.

They have had little to say publicly about the poison-gas leak from the Indian pesticide plant, beyond expressions of sympathy and support for the workers and community.

More public attention during the past few days has been focused on demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa, demonstrations in which AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Thomas Donahue was one of those arrested.

This does not indicate a lack of concern. To American labor, the Indian tragedy with its estimated loss of 2,000 lives underscores a need for constant, rigid inspections in US plants and ''speedy repairs,'' as the AFL-CIO puts it, to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) through congressional rejection of proposed fund cuts that could reduce the agency's effectiveness.

Generally, US union officials say they feel that chemical and other industrial plants in the US are safer than those in less-developed countries.

The US chemical industry is considered one of the safest in the country.

Nevertheless, unions in the chemical, textile, construction, steel, and other industries have been active in fighting plant and environmental hazards.

They concede that problems exist. Most are limited in what they can do, as unions, to police plants. They can point out problems, handle them as grievances with employers, and report them to OSHA. Few can shut down the plants, should they want to, under existing labor contracts.

Union safety committees, functioning under provisions of union contracts and under OSHA, concede that dangers exist wherever there are possibilities of chemical leakage, gas emissions, and toxic-waste disposal without proper safeguards for the environment. Until now many have considered the dangers a job risk.

As in coal mining, in which underground accidents kill and injure scores of miners each year, the alternative to risks is likely to be lost jobs caused by forced plant closings. Steve Breck, one of 1,400 employees at a Union Carbide operation in West Virginia, said, ''Sure, these are dangerous plants and people know it, but there are a lot of jobs here.''

The West Virginia region is one of the largest chemical-producing areas in the country.

The industry provides about 55 percent of all employment and the steady operation of the plants is responsible for millions of dollars in tax revenue as well as the thousands of jobs. However, workers and the community say the tragedy in India ''brought home to us all'' the risks they share.

There is similar concern in New Jersey, which has had problems with some 100 incidents this year involving small emissions of dioxin, a potentially dangerous product, and with toxic waste. Unions in the region call for a reassessment of the effectiveness of ''a whole plethora of rules and regulations'' covering the handling of dangerous materials.

The most concentrated fight for industrial safety now appears to come from an unexpected source, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) which, since early this year, has charged the high-tech industry in California's Silicon Valley and in Massachusetts with ''a growing number of serious threats to worker and public health and safety.''

For two decades the high-tech industry has been regarded generally as a clean and safe alternative to traditional smokestack industries. The CWA charges that ''the cleanliness is to protect manufactured semiconductor chips from contamination, not to protect the workers.''

According to the union, they are exposed to highly toxic substances.

Industry spokesmen on the West Coast and in Massachusetts bluntly deny the charges and counter by pointing out that the union is seeking issues to help it organize an industry that is about 90 percent nonunion.

The AFL-CIO, its Building and Construction and Trades Department, and teachers' unions have been campaigning strongly - and with some successes - against asbestos use in construction and in existing schools and other buildings. Quoting OSHA figures, the AFL-CIO says past exposures to asbestos could lead to ''the premature deaths of 200,000 workers before the end of this century.''

The National Education Association, an independent union, last month warned members nationwide that, because of asbestos ceilings, ''your school may be hazardous to the health of staff and students.'' Many schools around the country have been closed temporarily while asbestos ceilings were removed.

The Service Employees International Union recently went to court against the federal Environmental Protection Agency for ''foot dragging'' in imposing much tougher asbestos standards.

Textile unions are fighting a slowly effective battle against cotton dust and other mill hazards. Many unions are supporting a national campaign for acid-rain control. The AFL-CIO's Food and Allied Service Department is fighting for tighter controls of highly volatile grain dust; there have been 13 explosions in the first nine months of this year.

And among other unions fighting against hazards, the United Steelworkers, the United Rubber Workers, and a number of other unions are seeking better ventilation in industrial operations.

The fight is not limited to the United States. Earlier this year, the International Labor Office in Geneva noted in a summary of a worldwide study that most multinational enterprises ''post high scores on their home grounds in protecting workers' health and safety but too often the performance of their subsidiaries in less developed countries is flawed by negligence and lack of instruction for local workers who need to be made more aware of on-the-job risks.''

The study was released in August and could be a forerunner of similar findings from investigations into the Union Carbide disaster in India.

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