Fines against Union Carbide may signal tougher Reagan policy. Critics have called OSHA `toothless tiger'

The record penalty imposed on Union Carbide by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) raises the question: Has the Reagan administration decided to get tough with businesses on health and safety violations? On Tuesday OSHA announced it will seek $1.38 million in fines against Union Carbide for ``willful, overt violations'' of health and safety standards at the company's Institute, W.Va. plant. The announcement followed a six-month inspection launched after leaks at the Institute plant last August hospitalized six workers and sent 129 area residents to the emergency room.

US Secretary of Labor William E. Brock III accused Union Carbide of 221 violations of 55 federal safety and health laws. Carbide claims most of the charges involved paperwork and says it will appeal the fine.

Under the Reagan adminstration, OSHA has been criticized for being a ``toothless tiger'' that is too easy on business. ``We don't believe that trying to be reasonable and work with business in a nonadversarial approach makes us a toohtless tiger,'' says OSHA spokeswoman Chriss Winston. But that policy has resulted in increased danger to employees and others, critics say.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of injuries in the workplace rose from 4.7 million in 1983 to 5.3 million in 1984 (the latest year for which data is available.) That was the largest-ever one-year increase in the injury rate. The number of workplace fatalities also increased, by 21 percent.

The increased hazards, critics say, stem from a lax inspection and enforcement policy. According to OSHA statistics, the number of inspectors was cut from 1,328 to 1,086 between fiscal years 1980 (the last year of the Carter administration) and 1985. The dollar amount of penalties proposed by OSHA dropped by nearly half in the same period, from $15.5 million to $8.7 million.

Has Secretary Brock -- not yet a year in office -- toughened OSHA's policy? OSHA denies any shift. The move against Carbide ``is only a technical change in policy, not a philosophical one,'' says Ms. Winston. ``We are interpreting the law to allow us the flexibilty to levy the maximum penalty.''

But speaking Wednesday on NBC-TV's ``Today Show,'' Brock said that when a company ignores ``the basic fundamentals,'' as Union Carbide did, ``then, yeah, we're going to step on it; we're going to step on it hard.''

Others are divided about whether the Carbide action signals a crackdown.

``It may reflect the fact that Union Carbide is a high-visibility company,'' says Mark Rothstein, a lawyer and OSHA specialist at the University of Houston. ``Maybe OSHA wanted to make a statement,'' Mr. Rothstein says. But he's not sure that ``OSHA will be knocking down everyone's door.''

Eula Bingham, former assistant secretary of labor in the Carter administration who headed OSHA, says she thinks the Carbide action ``is a publicity ploy. The whole philosophy has been deregulation.'' She says it will take more than one incident to put business on notice:

``You have to keep sending signals out or industry will slacken off. Companies are going to wait to see what else happens.''

However, there have been other signs of a tougher policy under Brock, says Peggy Seminario, AFL-CIO associate director for occupational safety and health. In 1981 the Reagan administration started a policy of exempting industries with low injury rates from routine safety inspections. Companies producing agricultural chemicals were among those exempted. Union Carbide manufactures agricultural chemicals.

In September 1985, a month after the Institute accident, OSHA resumed inspections of highly hazardous chemicals, Ms. Seminario says. The other positive move, she says, came earlier this year when OSHA returned to a tougher citation policy.

Before 1982, OSHA's practice was to penalize a company for each time it violated a standard. Between 1982 and early 1986 the policy was to penalize a firm only once for each standard it violated. If it is found guilty of the new charges, Union Carbide will be the first major company caught under the resumed, tougher policy.

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