Steady signals on job safety

IF the $1.38 million fine the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed to levy against Union Carbide were really an indication that the Reagan administration was serious about workplace safety, it would be something to applaud. But there's not much indication that the proposed fine against Carbide, for alleged health and safety violations at its Institute, W.Va., plant, is really that kind of signal at all.

For one thing, Carbide is unlikely ever to have to pay $1.38 million. This is the biggest penalty ever assessed by OSHA, but its record includes fines actually paid that are a small fraction of fines originally imposed.

For another, one big fine does not an enforcement trend make.

Under the new budgetary restrictions, like any other arm of government, OSHA is having to choose its targets carefully. In the case of Union Carbide, whose Bhopal, India, plant was involved in the world's worst-ever industrial accident in December of 1984, and whose Institute plant had a gas leak last August that resulted in hospitalization of six workers and emergency-room treatment for 129 area residents, the press did much of OSHA's work for it.

Carbide's president has complained that many of the violations for which the company was cited are along the lines of failure to record an employee's social security number. But the company was also cited for allegedly using employees to ``sniff out'' leaks of deadly phosgene gas in the Institute plant. ``They used to use canaries for that,'' Labor Secretary William Brock said of this charge.

There is also cause for concern that hitting Carbide with a huge fine will divert attention from other companies whose practices may need correcting.

Over the years, OSHA has been the federal agency that people who love to hate federal agencies really love to hate. As a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan once proposed disbanding it. We remember the stories about toilets to be installed in the cornfields, and all the rest. The agency has not had a permanent chief since last May, and it took the White House half a year to make Secretary Brock's nominee for the spot official last month. No wonder there has been a lack of direction within the agency.

But maintaining workplace safety remains an important charge. The deregulators who feel that everyone will benefit if government gets off the back of business will end up shooting themselves in the foot if deregulation becomes identified with laxity in safety policy.

More important -- and effective -- than an occasional blockbuster fine is sending a consistent signal to industry that standards will be enforced.

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