The Multinational Monitor


T H E   F R O N T

Safety Double Standard

The auto safety battle is heating up on a new front. With federal regulators moving slowly, state legislators are seeking to warn consumers about light trucks, minivans and utility vehicles (LTVs). Automakers market them as "the station wagons of the '90s," but they conceal the fact that LTVs lack vital safety features required in passenger cars.

Originally, LTVs made up a tiny segment of the U.S. market, and were used primarily for hauling cargo. As a result, federal regulators in the 1960s exempted them from the minimum safety standards established for passenger cars. Automakers took advantage of this loophole to avoid installing head rests, side- door reinforcement beams, high-mounted rear brake lights, rear- seat shoulder harnesses and automatic restraints (effortless belts or air bags). Now LTV sales have burgeoned to a third of the U.S. new vehicle market, or about 5 million sales annually.

The Suburu Loyale and Dodge Colt exemplify the subterfuge manufacturers are employing to evade safety standards. Although the Loyale and Colt appear to be passenger sedans, Subaru and Chrysler classified the 4-wheel drive versions as LTVs. This enabled the companies to omit the automatic restraints. The Colt also lacks side-door reinforcement beams.

As LTVs have gained in popularity, pressure has mounted to close the regulatory loophole. As early as 1978, the General Accounting Office blasted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for "unwarranted delays" in improving light truck safety. The GAO found that in actual crashes, people in light trucks fared worse than people in passenger cars.

With rising sales, and with vehicle size decreasing, the death toll in LTVs has risen rapidly. In 1985, 6,798 people were killed in LTVs. In 1989, the number of fatalities jumped to 8,619. During that period, injuries rose from 583,000 to 850,000. NHTSA projects that if current trends continue, the toll will soar to 10,430 deaths and 997,500 injuries by 1994.

Concerned about this carnage, and under pressure from consumer groups and the U.S. Senate, NHTSA Administrator General Jerry Curry is moving to extend seven passenger car safety standards to LTVs. The agency projects that when those standards take effect, they will save an estimated 2,200 lives and prevent or reduce the severity of approximately 101,400 injuries a year.

However, if the standards are adopted as proposed, some LTVs still would not have to comply with far and away the most important standard--automatic restraints--until the 1998 model year. NHTSA estimates that this single standard will save 2,000 lives a year.

A preemption clause in federal law limits states' authority to require manufacturers to meet more stringent safety standards. However, states may require disclosure of vehicles' safety features. Virginia and California lead the drive for laws to alert consumers that some vehicles do not meet minimum federal safety standards for passenger cars.

In Virginia, lobbyists for General Motors, Ford and the Motor Vehicles Manufacturers Association narrowly succeeded in shelving a consumer information bill, arguing that it would "confuse" consumers. The bill is to be reconsidered next session.

In California, safety advocates back a bill requiring dealers to post labels on minivans, informing consumers whether they meet pending safety standards. Having passed both the Assembly and the Senate, the bill now awaits the signature or veto of Republican Governor George Deukmeijan. Says the bill's author, Democratic Assemblyman Johan Klehs, "Minivans are rapidly replacing station wagons for families with children. It is ridiculous that federal safety requirements for station wagons do not apply to minivans." He adds, however, "I am not trying to dictate safety standards. I simply want consumers to have the information they need to make an informed choice."

Klehs' bill has attracted support from a broad-based coalition, including the California Public Interest Research group, California's Attorney General, the California Automobile Association and the Alliance of American Insurers. In addition, national organizations such as the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Auto Safety support the bill in hopes that it will set a precedent for other states.

The controversial bill is strongly opposed by auto manufacturers and dealers. Automakers deny that LTVs are less safe than passenger cars, and fear that informed consumers may not buy LTVs. Lee Ridgeway, a lobbyist for General Motors, says enactment of the Klehs bill "could discourage the purchase of multipurpose vans in favor of smaller or midsize vehicles that may be less safe."

Proponents of the bill maintain that automakers are attempting to mislead the public about the relative safety of LTVs. "Statistics published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show that the occupant death rate is higher in small pickup trucks than any other vehicle; that the fatal rollover crash rate of small utility vehicles is 25 times that of large cars; and that 75 percent of occupant deaths in small utility vehicles occurred in single vehicle crashes, drawing into serious question the protection offered by the vehicle itself," says Laura Polacheck, staff attorney for the Center for Auto Safety.

Proponents also point to confusion among consumers and even dealers and manufacturers about which vehicles meet which standards. A survey conducted by the California Public Interest Research Group found that an overwhelming majority of dealers gave inaccurate information about safety features in LTVs. An inquiry by Assemblyman Klehs's office revealed that manufacturers themselves are unable to say whether their LTVs meet some standards, because they do not test those vehicles for compliance.

"Manufacturers promote minivans as family vehicles, yet they're dragging their feet on meeting basic safety standards," comments Assemblyman Klehs. "Until these standards are extended to all vehicles, consumers have the right to know which regulations are met before they drive that new vehicle home on the freeway."

- Rosemary Dunlap

Workers at Risk

A deadly blast ripped through the Channelview, Texas ARCO Chemical Co. plant on July5, 1990, killing 17 non-unionized workers and transforming a 564 acre petrochemical complex into a heap of mangled, charred metal. The decimated facility had processed propylene oxide styrene monomer, a component of polyester fabric and foam cushions.

The ARCO blast killed 5 regular employees, 11 contract workers employed by Austin Industries, Inc. and a truck driver.

The catastrophic ARCO blast followed a dozen smaller Texas petrochemical accidents in the preceding 30 days, including a Phillips Pasadena plant fire that caused eight injuries. Other petrochemical accidents in the last year have killed and injured workers in California, Indiana, Ohio and Louisiana.

Only nine months earlier, in October 1989, a Phillips 66 chemical plant in Pasadena, Texas also erupted along the Houston Ship Channel. That deadly explosion spouted a "mushroom cloud," killed 23 workers, injured 230 others and spurred numerous investigations of the petrochemical industry.

Fred Millar, a toxics expert with Friends of the Earth, ties "the death toll" to insufficient government regulation of the petrochemical industry. "An American Bhopal is next on the agenda if we don't work very hard to prevent it," Millar warns.

Union activists point to the petrochemical industry's growing reliance on contract labor as a fundamental cause of both the ARCO and Phillips fatalities. Since 1980, the industry has increasingly replaced permanent workers with contract labor to cut costs and maximize profits.

Tom Gentry, President of Houston local 4-227 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), says that with "outside contractors on the job [at ARCO] and long hours being worked, it was the same thing [as the Phillips situation] all over again." During the week before the ARCO explosion, some employees worked as many as 86 hours. Phillips' Houston Chemical Complex workmen's committee chairman J.R. "Red" Moore agrees with Gentry. "We knew another explosion would happen and ARCO's not going to be the last one. The whole industry is still looking at dollar signs instead of safety."

ARCO, however, disputes the importance of contract workers as a safety issue. "The focus on contract workers is unfortunate. It doesn't address the problem," says Earl Bradford, ARCO vice-president of public affairs. The ARCO Channel-view plant employed over 125 contract workers and 391 regular employees when its July disaster colored the midnight sky orange.

Contract workers were performing maintenance in the ARCO and Phillips plants when both accidents occurred. Former oil worker C.T. Roberts overheard one Phillips supervisor telling another "to keep an eye on the contractors because they didn't know what they were doing" right before a process gas re-lease triggered the explosion.

Contract labor agencies, which supply temporary blue-collar labor, employ one third of the petrochemical workers in the Texas Gulf Coast area. Full-time industrial employees earn about $6 an hour more than contract workers.

Commissioned by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the wake of the Phillips explosion, the John Grey Institute, a component of Lamar University, issued a preliminary study of contractor safety and health practices in April. It found that petrochemical corporations often leave safety instruction and job training up to contractor companies without supervision.

"As long as an untrained work force is used, then you're playing with dynamite," says Moore, who suffered hearing loss when he was thrown against a fence by the Phillips explosion. He notes that Phillips did not "replace the regular employees that they killed" last year.

In April, OSHA levied fines of $5.7 million on the company and $750,000 on its principal contractor, Fish Engineering and Construction. Simultaneously, OSHA issued a report separate from the John Grey study to present the results of its investigation of the Phillips accident.

While the OSHA report chides Phillips for lacking adequate "safety management systems," it never questions whether the contract labor system itself jeopardizes normal operations. Findings from an OSHA investigation of the ARCO accident currently underway will be presented by January 1991.

OCAW faulted the OSHA report for failing to note the systemic roots of the Phillips accident. Robert Wages, OCAW vice-president, criticized it for portraying Phillips as a "renegade or as a serious exception when there is very little basis for doing so." Dick Leonard, OCAW special projects director, accuses OSHA of being "fixated on the technological and procedural side." He believes that "on-the-job experience is probably the single most important safety factor."

Phillips has appealed OSHA's fines, which amount to 2 percent of the company's 1989 profits. In an official statement, Phillips President and Chief Operating Officer Glenn A. Cox denied OSHA's allegations that "an unsafe work environment or a lack of management commitment to safety" caused last year's accident.

Despite the ARCO and Phillips catastrophes, industry representatives still boast about low injury rates when defending their safety pro-grams. Representative Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the Employment and Housing Subcommittee, has derided these rates as "phony," however. OSHA's current recording system allows petrochemical companies to ignore contract worker injuries when counting casualties. Lantos points out that of 17 workers killed in the ARCO explosion, 11 will be inaccurately recorded as construction industry fatalities.

With two major explosions and dozens of smaller accidents in the last year, worker concern with safety has heightened dramatically. After seeing the plant blow up, Moore notes that "workers understand the potential for another explosion. They don't feel like they should be forced to work in an unsafe environment."

� Emily Schwartz

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