Safety group charges OSHA with favoritism

A Chicago-based safety group is charging that the Reagan administration is making sweetheart deals with safety violators. After imposing multimillion-dollar safety fines on such companies as Chrysler Corporation and Union Carbide Corporation - and getting credit for its ``get-tough'' policy - the administration has settled most of those cases by substantially reducing the fines, says a report released today by the National Safe Workplace Institute.

Of the 11 settlements of fines over $100,000 imposed since 1986, only two were paid in full, the institute says. In the other nine cases, the government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration settled the cases by reducing the fines anywhere from one-third to nine-tenths of their original value.

For example, after fining Union Carbide a total of nearly $1.5 million, OSHA eventually settled for $408,500 - a cut of 72.5 percent.

The institute developed the figures from OSHA documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

What the report neglected to tell, OSHA contends, is that even the settlements are higher than the proposed fines of the 1970's.

``We are porposing and collecting greater penalties than ever before,'' says agency spokesman Terry Mikelson. And the agency has been able to get immediate action throughout the company, he adds, as opposed to a court decision addressing a single workplace.

The concept of large fines and settlements also gets qualified support from a range of other OSHA experts.

For one thing, even the announcement of a large fine against one firm forces other businesses and industries to pay more attention to OSHA regulations, says Bob Gombar, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has represented several companies hit with large fines.

The settlements also allow OSHA to keep from tying up its legal staff on a single case, he adds.

``OSHA has always engaged in settlements,'' says Margaret Seminario, the AFL-CIO's associate director for safety and health.

The biggest differences under the Reagan administration is the process and emphasis of the settlements. In some cases involving union employers, the unions have been cut out of settlement talks between federal officials and the corporation, Ms. Seminario says. Even worse, the agreements have stressed the monetary damages but have not always specified the actions that safety violators would take to eliminate the safety problems, she adds.

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