Chrysler's fine called attempt to hide indifference to safety. OSHA acts shortly before hearing in Congress

Earlier this week, the government levied a $1.6 million fine on Chrysler Corporation for allowing unsafe working conditions. Rather than being encouraged by the record penalty, critics say that this regulatory swagger is an attempt to ``paper over'' government indifference to workplace safety.

Moreover, they say, a time bomb has just been lit in California, and they worry that employees across the country will pay a heavy price in injuries and deaths unless the government takes quick action to change its policies.

At the eye of the storm is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which monitors some 7 million work sites. In recent months, OSHA has levied a string of fines on high visibility companies, including Union Carbide, Ford, Chrysler, Caterpillar, and Shell Oil. OSHA spokesman James Foster says these ``shouldn't be characterized as a get-tough policy,'' and that OSHA still takes a cooperative attitude when dealing with business. Critics agree.

In fact, they are suspicious of the timing of the Chrysler penalty. The Senate is planning to take a close look at OSHA in hearings this fall, and ``in anticipation ... they're making it look like they're trying to enforce the law,'' says an aide on the Senate Labor Committee. OSHA made a similar show of force last year when it fined Union Carbide $1.3 million (then a record) just before House oversight hearings.

Headline-grabbing penalties are unlikely to assuage congressional ire, however. ``To throw out a few bones now is hardly compensation for years of little or no enforcement,'' the aide says. Moreover, others say, recent events suggest that things will only get worse.

Until this month, California had its own OSHA, as do 22 other states. Cal/OSHA monitored some 600,000 sites employing 11 million people. On July 1, California, citing a tight state budget, dismantled its program and handed responsibility back to the federal government.

That bodes ill not only for California, where the program was generally considered more vigilant than the federal program, but for the whole country, says Peggy Seminario at the AFL-CIO. ``The [federal] system will be overwhelmed,'' she says, noting that inspectors from other regions like Chicago, Boston, and New York will be moved to California.

OSHA says it is trying to hire more inspectors but is still 100 people short of its authorized number of inspectors, even before the California pullout. However, agency spokesman Foster points out that even with a 300-person cut in inspector ranks since the Carter administration, the number of injuries and illnesses has stayed steady, and the number of deaths on the job has fallen by 15 percent.

Labor unions don't buy the numbers, and even Labor Department statisticians put a disclaimer on them. Companies simply underreport the number of injuries that happen at the workplace, unions say. For example, the union at the IBP meatpacking plant in Dakota City, Neb., says that the plant kept two sets of injury records for a three-month period in 1985: one for OSHA, which said that 160 employees had been injured; and an internal report, which put the injury and illness figure at 1,800. The union complained to OSHA. The plant, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, opened its files to the government only after OSHA got a subpoena.

OSHA has not released the results of its inspection. The question remains: Why would IBP risk a hefty fine ($10,000 a violation) by underreporting its injury rate, if it did so?

The reason could be because OSHA targets its inspections on companies and industries - like construction, lumber, furniture, and metal fabrication (including autos) - where injury rates are above the national average. IBP's stated injury rate was so low that OSHA exempted it from inspections; before the union complaint, there had been no inspection since 1983.

``For the last seven years, employers have had a potent incentive to lie'' about the number of injuries that happen in the workplace, says David Vladeck, a lawyer at Public Citizen Litigation Group, a Ralph Nader organization. He worries that employee complaints and tragedy, rather than reporting statistics, are becoming the events that tip off government inspectors to a dangerous work situation.

Sometimes, even complaints don't work their way fast enough through the OSHA bureaucracy. Last December, after a worker at a General Motors plant in Massachusetts called OSHA about possible hazards at the site, he was asked to file a written complaint. Two working days later, Martin Lawless, a 19-year-old roofer, fell through an unguarded roof hole and died.

OSHA officials note that the caller's complaints were unrelated to the cause of the accident, and did not fall into the ``serious'' category. The AFL-CIO's Ms. Seminario says that OSHA is generally ``pretty good'' about responding to complaints, but there simply is not the staff or inclination to catch such violations before they result in accidents.

Moreover, when it does catch violations, OSHA sends the wrong signal to business, according to a highly critical, unreleased report by the Inspector General's office at the Department of Labor. It cites the case of a construction company that repeatedly violated a rule requiring workers on scaffolds to wear safety belts. After a worker fell and died, the company was fined $1,400, much less than the maximum, and after a conference with company officials, OSHA cut the fine to $700.

OSHA says that such negotiated settlements force companies to correct the dangerous situation immediately. During the Carter administration, a quarter of the companies fined would contest the charges and could continue with their present standards until the judge rendered a decision, which could take years. Today the contest rate is 3 percent, Foster says.

Critics inside and outside the government are concerned that OSHA is ill-equipped to deal with future problems, especially those related to the ``H'' part of OSHA: the long-term health problems stemming from toxic substances or even the impact of working with video terminals. These problems are harder to detect than overt safety violations.

To tighten health standards, OSHA is hiring more health inspectors as safety inspectors retire. With 7 million workplaces to cover, those 385 industrial hygienists will have their work cut out for them.

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