The Multinational Monitor

MAY 1987 - VOLUME 8 - NUMBER 5

T H E   C A S E   A G A I N S T   C O R P O R A T E   C R I M E

Death on the Job

OSHA Under the Company Thumb

by David Kusnet

When future historians recall Ronald Reagan's America, they may remember textile workers dying of brown lung, chemical workers suffering from cancer, and auto workers killed in assembly-line accidents.

These human tragedies are as much a part of the United States of the 1980s as insider trading scandals on Wall Street and White House-sponsored clandestine foreign policy forays in Washington.

And in a sense, they reflect a similar mentality: what journalist Stewart Alsop called the "phony toughness" of corporate and government officials so preoccupied with shortterm gains that they ignore human considerations.

As the Reagan era comes to a close, two related legacies remain for American workers: In private industry, a mean new mentality has emerged that views job-related injuries and even deaths as a routine cost of doing business. And, in Washington, D.C., a Reagan administration preoccupation with cutting the federal budget and deregulating private business has crippled the federal agency created to protect workers from job hazards - the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

As businesses push for increased productivity by laying off employees, introducing new technologies, and requiring that remaining employees step-up work schedules, job safety is the casualty. Management's competitiveness craze has coincided with rising injury rates in a host of industries from steel making to meatpacking, machine tools, and metal fabrication.

Corporate managers have contributed to the increase in jobrelated injuries by pressuring already overworked employees to work at speeds that compromise safety; skimping on safety measures and maintenance of plants and equipment; and slashing company safety programs and personnel, including physicians and industrial hygienists.

Death on the Job

Horror stories from the meatpacking, steel and textile industries explain why the "lean and mean" workplace of the 1980s is dangerous to employees' health and safety.

  • Faced with problems ranging from declining beef consumption to falling commodity prices, the meatpacking industry has reduced its work force and accelerated its production process. Lost workdays resulting from injuries have increased dramatically in the last several years.In addition to the most serious injuries, speedups on the lines in meatpacking cause thousands of workers to suffer from job-related wrist and hand ailments.

    "My fingers go numb," Gary Shadbolt, a worker at IBP's plant in Dakota City, Nebraska told the LA Times. "Then the swelling in my wrists comes, and my fingers won't move. Finally, my left hand goes dead. The chain speed [on the production line] just got so fast. The doctor said my wrists just wore out."

  • While steel mill closings and steelworker layoffs have made the headlines, the steel industry's cut back on safety has also had devastating results. From 1982 through 1985, while the steel industry's work force dropped from 394,000 to 304,900, lost workdays due to injuries soared from 77.7 per hundred workers in 1982 to 97.7 per hundred workers in 1985.

    When routine maintenance and inspections are neglected and workers are overburdened, industrial accidents result.

    "They have absolutely cut back on money for maintenance and safety, and they've cut back the management staff devoted to safety and health," explained Mike Wright, safety director for the United Steelworkers.

  • In the largely non-unionized chemical industry, the problems are compounded. Both the steel and meatpacking industries are unionized, and their workers - although suffering from OSHA's abandonment and manager preoccupation with productivity - enjoy decent wages, good benefits, and at least a measure of protection against mistreatment on the job.

    In the chemical industry and other fast-growing non-union sectors of the economy, workers enjoy few if any protections of their rights, particularly their right to a safe working environment.

    The Uretek company in New Haven, Connecticut, pays just above the minimum wage and runs 12 hour shifts, six days a week. The factory - which coats parachute fabric with chemicals - reportedly lacks basic safety features such as adequate ventilation, properly fitting covers for its chemical drums, or even protective gear such as rubber gloves and boots for employees working directly with potentially dangerous chemicals. Connecticut's Attorney General described the factory as "something out of the 19th Century."

    Following employee complaints that they were frequently ill, suffering from nausea and stomach cramps, Yale New Haven Hospital tested 50 Uretek workers and found 30 had liver problems resulting from on-the-job exposure to a dangerous chemical - dimethylformamide.

    Now, Uretek faces legal action by the state government and a union drive by its workers. OSHA seems to be the least of Uretek's problems.

Reagan's Legacy: A Toothless OSHA

For workers, a toothless OSHA may be the most lasting legacy of the Reagan administration.

"They tried to kill OSHA," says AFL-CIO health and safety expert Margaret Seminario. "OSHA's still alive, but it's seriously injured, and it will take a long time to bring it back to where it was."

Created by Congress in 1970, OSHA reached its peak of effectiveness during the Carter administration under the leadership of Dr. Eula Bingham, a toxicologist who believed that the agency should not only police workplaces but should also educate and organize workers to protect themselves. Bingham's OSHA generated a flood of informative new publications, sent staff throughout the country conducting conferences, and funded innovative projects to help labor, business and community groups promote job safety.

These efforts were virtually eliminated by President Reagan, who had declared in the 1980 campaign that there was "no need for OSHA." During the Reagan years, OSHA has fallen victim to federal budget cuts, deregulation mania, and lackadaisical administrators whose backgrounds and sympathies are rarely with the employees exposed to unsafe processes or products.

The difference between OSHA under Carter and Reagan is symbolized by the transition from Eula Bingham to Reagan's first OSHA administrator, Thorne Auchter, a 34-year-old construction company executive. Auchter, best known for destroying OSHA booklets on brown lung disease because they were "anti-business," left OSHA in 1984 to accept a job with a construction company for which he had previously dismissed citations totaling $12,680 in penalties. Auchter's successors, Robert Rowland and John Pendergrass, although less flamboyant, have been just as anti-worker.

Under Auchter, Rowland and Pendergrass, OSHA's staff has been decimated and demoralized. And the last six years have seen inspections reduced, enforcement curtailed, serious problems - such as toxic substances - ignored, and the worker's role in improving safety conditions downgraded.

OSHA's staff was slashed from 3,015 in 1980 to 2,355 in 1984; one third of its field offices were closed; and its inspection staff - the agency's foot-soldiers - were reduced by 25 percent.

Under the Reagan administration OSHA has also cut back on workplace inspections - perhaps the agency's most important program. Inspections declined from 63,363 in 1980 to 59,452 in 1986. During the same period the number of serious violations discovered declined from 44,695 to 35,662 and total penalties were down from $25.5 million to $12.5 million.

The decline in inspections resulted from a shift in OSHA's activities toward "targeting" the most unsafe companies and industries and seeking "voluntary compliance" by business.

Under the new policies, entire industries whose injury rate falls below the national average - as well as companies whose injury rates are below average - are virtually exempt from inspections. Thus, 75 percent of all manufacturing employers are excused from routine safety inspections.

Meanwhile, even those inspections that do take place are frequently limited to examinations of employer safety records rather than actual investigations of conditions in the factory itself. In 1983, more than half of all general safety visits in manufacturing - 10,638 out of 20,496 visits - were "paper reviews" of employer records.

Thus, OSHA has placed itself at the mercy of the companies' own records on workers' injuries. Companycompiled figures determine which industries - and even which companies - OSHA will inspect. All this gives companies an added incentive to falsify their own records, and, after six years of taking corporate statistics at face value, OSHA is beginning to acknowledge that some companies are doing just that.

Even when OSHA discovers safety violations, the emphasis is now on voluntary compliance by management. Conflict is avoided at all costs. In a major change in the "institutional culture" of OSHA, enforcement policies now encourage OSHA area directors to settle cases before the employer formally challenges the citation; indeed, a reduced rate of contested cases is one of the job performance measures for OSHA area directors. The result is fewer citations, lower penalties, and a tendency to under state the seriousness of safety hazards.

In a 1984 report, the AFL-CIO compared how similar incidents of unsafe coke ovens were handled by the Carter and Reagan administration OSHAs. In 1979, 52 serious violations were issued, and $51,700 in penalties were assessed for violations of OSHA's coke oven standard. But, in 1983, the new policies produced only three serious violations, and $2,800 in penalties were assessed for 38 instances of noncompliance with provisions of the coke oven standard.

An estimated 25 million workers are exposed to toxic substances on the job, and the threat is increasing with the growth of new technologies in industries such as microelectronics and waste management.

But Reagan's OSHA team has dragged its feet on setting safety standards for work with toxic substances. More stringent regulations for ethylene oxide, ethylene dibromide and benzene, for example, have all been denied and OSHA's 1983 standards on asbestos did little more than require the use of paper dust masks.

The administration's indifference to the problem of exposure to toxic substances was exemplified by an incident uncovered by the Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen Health Research Group. According to studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, between 200,000 and 250,000 workers have been exposed to cancer-causing substances but were never informed of the danger to their health. The Reagan administration rejected a 1985 budget proposal to notify these workers that they were at risk for cancer - information that might encourage the exposed worker to seek regular medical examinations.

Discouraging Workers From Protecting Their Safety

As Eula Bingham understood, job safety ultimately depends upon workers protecting their own rights. The Reagan administration, however, has not only cut back programs to educate workers about OSHA but has actually discouraged workers from correcting safety hazards in their workplaces. Shortly after Reagan took office in 1981, OSHA abolished a regulation requiring that workers be paid for time spent on OSHA inspections. As a result, the number of workers who exercised their right to request inspections declined from 29,000 in 1980 to 13,000 in 1983.

Under the Reagan administration, OSHA's effectiveness has plummeted at a time when workers need it most: when reduced workforces have been forced to work harder, frequently using new technologies, inadequately maintained equipment - or both. Even if an administration more concerned with the welfare of workers takes office in 1989, it will have a hard time rebuilding OSHA. And if Reaganism continues with a new face, employees in dangerous workplaces will still be on their own.

Multinationals and Morality: The Corporate Decency Act

Although few studies attempt to detail the cost to consumers of corporations that violate the law, the cost to Texan workers, says Texas State Representative Juan Hinojosa, is all too clear.

Each year in Texas more than 700 workers are killed on the job. In 1986, the state topped the nation in the number of construction site fatalities - almost 200 more workers were killed in Texas than in any other state.

In three out of four cases, workers who were killed at construction sites died in accidents where violations of federal safety regulations were a contributing factor, according to a 1986 study by the Dallas Times Herald.

"It's a conscious decision by corporate officials to sacrifice worker safety for the bottomline," said David Puryear, chief of the Criminal Division for the Travis County Attorney's Office.

To encourage employers to provide safer working conditions, Rep. Hinojosa, chairman of the state's Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, has introduced legislation to set "a standard of behavior for corporate entities and their officials."

Dubbed the Corporate Decency Act, Hinojosa's bill would prohibit corporations from endangering the public and concealing Wards, and would provide stiff, new penalties against corporations that violate the law, including charter or tax subsidy revocations, and exclusion from state contracts.

"This bill will give Texas employers and employees the incentive to review possible dangers in their workplaces," said Hinojosa.

New York, Pennsylvania and other states are also looking at legislation mandating "corporate decency" to curb unchecked lawbreaking and regulatory sidestepping, according to the Coalition for Consumer Justice (CCJ).

CCJ, a coalition of 35 consumer, labor, environmental and civil rights groups, is sending out model corporate decency act legislation to all 50 state legislatures.

"When some of our largest corporations file for bankruptcy to avoid paying for the injuries they have caused, and when corporate managers and workers who have given their lives to their companies lose their jobs because of hostile corporate raiders, it is time for out legislators to start thinking about higher levels of corporate morality," says Mike Lemov of CCJ.

CCJ's proposed legislation, on which the Texas bill is based, would also allow states to prohibit corporations with "bad character" - showing patterns of disregard for the law or deception - from doing business there.

CCJ's legislation also includes thorough worker and community hazard notification requirements. Corporations would be required to provide: locations and amounts of hazardous products used or manufactured, recycling methods or treatments of toxins, nature and location of storage containers, evacuation and transportation routes, safety and medical equipment warranted by an accident, and proper handling procedures.

And both the Texas legislation and the model CCJ legislation also have tough whistleblower protections. The CCJ legislation further ensures accountability, by a "truth in bidding" clause that would require corporations receiving` tax breaks or government subsidies to specifically spell out the services it would provide to the public in exchange for the tax breaks.

Hearings were held on Hinojosa's bill on April 27.

David Kusnet directed publicity in organizing campaign, for the American Federation of State, County and Municipai Employees (AFSCME). He was a speechwriter for the late AFSCME President Jerry Waif and for Walter Mondale during the final two months of the 1984 presidential campaign.

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