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Workers stiffed: death and injury rates among America's workers soar, and the government has never cared less.

On his best day, Stephen King couldn't have made this up: Homer Stull, a 20year-old kid working the graveyard shift in June 1991 at Liberal, Kansas's National Beef packing plant, died in a tank of cattle blood. He was cleaning a filter atop a 20-foothigh storage tank holding 27,000 gallons of the blood--a tank where something had gone seriously wrong several days before. The plant had lost electrical power, and deep in the vat, the bovine blood stagnated instead of circulating, releasing deadly hydrogen sulfide fumes. When Stull, oblivious to the danger, climbed up on the tank, the blood's fumes choked him. He died, retching on poisonous gas--as did two other workers trying to rescue him.

Oddly enough, this had all happened before. In 1983, three National Beef workers died in a similar way at the same tank in the same plant. Weird coincidence?

Actually, fortune had nothing to do with it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)--the federal agency responsible for monitoring on-the-job safety--had simply failed, once again, to do its job. When the first trio of men died, OSHA fined National Beef $960--that's $320 a life--and asked that the cleaning routine be made safer. But after a single follow-up inspection in the wake of the first deaths, OSHA never came back to check if the new rules were being enforced.

The macabre case of National Beef underscores an equally macabre new trend, one endangering millions of American workers. Onthe-job injury rates--once on the decline--are now at their highest levels in a decade. The AFL-CIO estimates that 6 million workers are injured every year; 60,000 of those are permanently disabled. Though fatalities are down, 10,000 workers were killed on the job in 1990. That's about one Homer Stull every hour. To make matters worse, observers inside and outside OSHA say these death and injury figures may be underreported by as much as 50 percent. But nobody-- not OSHA, not the Department of Labor, not Congress--seems to care very much.

What's going on? OSHA's boilerplate defense is that it's understaffed and underfunded. That may be true, but at the same time, the agency hasn't really lobbied for more money. Its $300 million federal appropriation is laughable compared to the $1.1 billion earmarked to monitor fish and wildlife. The agency is supposed to keep tabs on 6 million workplaces with just 1,200 inspectors and 21 OSHA-approved state inspection programs. That means it can inspect individual employers once every 84 years, according to the AFL-CIO. And a General Accounting Office report reveals that because of "resource constraints," fewer than 5 percent of OSHA's 1991 inspections were follow-ups to check on whether existing problems had been resolved.

Follow-up inspections at National Beef would have revealed that management wasn't paying attention. "The plant was in deplorable shape," concedes Tom Gutykunst, president and CEO of National Beef's parent company, Idle Wild Foods. Gutykunst's company took over the Liberal plant a few months before the 1991 deaths, inheriting an operation, he said, with safety problems exacerbated by OSHA's failure to reinspect. The agency wasn't slow on the trigger when the second round of deaths occurred: It hit National Beef with a $1.5 million fine. But that doesn't mean the firm will end up paying that amount, as OSHA has a history of reducing its heftiest fines.

While there have been more and better workers' compensation insurance programs in recent years, management has found a way to capitalize on even that. The insurance gives employers a rationale to cut comers on safety: If the company's covered, then it doesn't have to cough up huge settlements when somebody croaks in a tank of blood or gets eaten by a machine. In a catch-22 that squeezes workers from both sides, OSHA doesn't have enough power to force sloppy employers to clean up their acts. And the agency has been notoriously reluctant to use what little power it does have.

Accidents happen

OSHA's paltry budget is no accident; it's the result of three consecutive Republican administrations that would rather bow to businesses than protect workers. While mindlessly pursuing a deregulatory agenda, the Republicans put a clamp on smart regulations. Meanwhile, labor unions, long advocates of safe working conditions, are declining at an alarming rate. (Just 18 percent of all wage and salary workers currently belong to unions, compared to 25 percent in 1970.) As a result, today's workers have nowhere to turn to make sure management isn't overlooking safety. Nowhere, that is, except to an administration that ranks workplace safety about as high a priority as gay fights.

Take the Department of Labor. In April, the United Food and Commercial Workers' union petitioned for a new standard to protect workers from repetitive motion injuries. There's now hard evidence that such injuries skyrocketed by 550 percent from 1981 to 1989. But the administration said no. In another case, when OSHA itself proposed to limit drastically the toxic fumes to which workers could be exposed to during road and roof repairs, Labor declined. After the asphalt industry launched what The Wall Street Journal called "a back-door lobbying assault," Labor suggested an asphalt exposure standard 25 times higher than what OSHA's health officials thought appropriate.

The fact that 300 workers are killed in enclosed spaces every year doesn't raze the administration either. While there's been some talk about requiring employers to identify confined spaces, flag their hazards, check oxygen levels, and require breathing equipment (regulations that, according to OSHA inspectors, might have saved the six men at National Beef), OSHA failed for more than a decade to get the new regs on the books. Why the inaction? One reason is that the agency has had 10 different directors in the past 12 years--a political turnover that's kept the agency from setting long-term goals.

But even those directors who have stuck around for a while haven't been especially interested in creating intelligent regulations or even enforcing the old ones. OSHA, for example, doesn't fully use its civil power to impose significant fines. Between 1972 and 1990, the median death or injury penalty was $480. In 1990, Congress gave OSHA a sevenfold increase in its civil-penalty power; in 1992, the GAO found that the average penalty still fell dramatically short of the new maximum levels. Even when OSHA levies hefty, high-profile fines, corporations often succeed in getting those fines reduced. According to an OSHA inspector general's report, 72 percent of "egregious" penalties were cut. Phillips Petroleum knows all about that. After a 1989 explosion killed 23 workers at the Phillips plant in Pasadena, Texas, OSHA found 575 willful and serious safety violations. Bravely, the agency fined the corporation $5.7 million. Ultimately, however, Phillips got the fine reduced by nearly a third and convinced OSHA to drop charges of the most serious safety violations. That was not an isolated case: The GAO says contested OSHA penalties get cut in 57 percent of the cases employers fight.

While the big fish slip the hook, OSHA seems more interested in pursuing dubious microregulations. In the seventies, for example, the agency decreed that toilet seats had to be horseshoe-shaped. In 1991, another pointy-headed ruling in effect required companies to label ordinary table salt with health warnings. Republicans love to hype examples of regulatory overkill as prime reasons to deregulate altogether. But that misses the real, flesh-and-blood point: The idea isn't to sweep away all regulations or micro-regulate the world, but to make common-sense rules that protect lives as much as possible.

To blame only OSHA and the administration for OSHA's failures is misleading. Even when OSHA wants to get tough, it's hamstrung by congressional limitations on its enforcement power. In fact, OSHA has never had the authority to close a hazardous workplace: It has to go to court to take that drastic step, and companies know it. As a result, OSHA must routinely rely on a company's good faith to clean up hazards.

In dramatic contrast, OSHA's sister agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, has the unilateral muscle to shut down equipment, operations, or entire job sites that pose an imminent danger to workers. Even if corporations appeal, that's the kind of power that can mean the difference between life and death--and between sensible regulatory effectiveness and bureaucratic dithering. The mine safety agency can require that a given hazard be corrected while appeals are pending. By contesting OSHA citations, on the other hand, companies easily delay fixing hazards until cases are resolved years later.

OSHA's power to press criminal charges is even more restricted. Deaths due to willful violations of OSHA standards are punishable by a maximum of six months' jail time--and keep in mind that somebody has to actually die before criminal action can be undertaken. "You can have 1,000 people severely injured and there is no potential for criminal prosecution," says Jan Chatten-Brown, a special assistant to the Los Angeles County district attorney.

What can we do now? In Washington state, worker-employer safety committees are mandatory, and they work. Washington's job safety program, which unites workers and employers in decisionmaking, allowed companies to cut workers' compensation costs by as much as 18 percent in a year. While a healthand-safety committee program similar to Washington's has been introduced in Congress, and is supported in principle by the Clinton campaign, the Bush administration remains opposed to the idea.

OSHAs apart

There is a good bill pending in Congress that would remedy some of the glaring holes in OSHA's power. In June a Senate labor panel held its final hearing of the session on a massive OSHA reform bill. The legislation would boost the agency's fining power, allow it to correct hazards while contested citations are pending, and force employers to verify corrections in writing and post verifications at work sites. The stakes of the debate were dramatized by two witnesses from opposite political worlds: Jesse Jackson and Dorothy Strunk, OSHA's acting administrator.

Jackson was the first to testify. "In many ways, this committee has jurisdiction over the great American promise... a promise not just of a job, but of a job with dignity, a job with security, a job with safety." Then came Strunk: "OSHA is protecting America's men and women," she said, and then cut the legs out from under the proposed reform. The bill "would lead to excessive conflict and litigation" and "decrease OSHA's ability to continue to respond to emerging hazards."

Strunk clucked over the money side of things, too. The bill "'would require a doubling in OSHA's budget," she said, adding that "that kind of increase is simply unrealistic." Is it? Rep. William D. Ford, the Democratic chairman of the House committee on education and labor, said that the administration had spumed his overtures after the infamous 1991 Hamlet chicken-processing plant fire. "When I offered to help the secretary of labor to secure more funding for OSHA enforcement efforts in North Carolina after the Imperial Food Products fire, my offer was refused."

If nothing else, that remark and the rest of the hearings--indicates that this is a rare instance where there's money but no will. With organized labor unable-and OSHA unwilling--to take the lead, reform proposals gather dust on the shelf. After all, with unions fading fast, and their limited resources focused on simply protecting wages, the days are gone when they could also battle management to make mines safe and close down sweatshops--let alone push weighty legislation through an ambivalent administration and Congress. But unions alone shouldn't have to carry the burden of making workplaces safe. That job should fall to the president and to the Congress. The statistics are there to justify taking a look at what OSHA does and doesn't do, can and can't do, and, most important, what it ought to do to save lives.
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Author:Freedman, Allan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:Split decision.
Next Article:No truth, no consequences: if Congress wants to discourage testifiers from lying, maybe it should ask them to tell the truth.

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