When Ronald Reagan reached the White House in January 1981, he carried with him a campaign promise to abolish the Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA). Since Presidents have to be more subtle then candidates on the trail, Mr. Reagan decided instead to turn this vital agency for American workers into a hollow pretense of its life-saving mission.
To achieve this callous objective, he chose a Florida construction company executive, Thorne Auchter, who had two qualifications. First, he was a leading campaign supporter of candidate Reagan. And second, his experience with OSHA consisted of his company incurring a number of the agency’s citations for safety violations.
Auchter had a third trait that since has come into the forefront. He possesses a remarkably glib ability to dispense fictions about what he is really doing at the Department of Labor. By his admission, Auchter came to head OSHA knowing very little about health and safety abuses in the corporate workplace. In the past two and a half years he has scarcely disturbed his state of knowledge in that respect. But what he has constructed is a pattern of semantic facades over his incremental destruction of the federal job safety programs under the historic 1970 law.
According to him “OSHA is far better now than it was.” Such a claim makes many OSHA safety inspectors around the country respond either in outrage or mockery. Real, not paper inspections, of workplaces are down. Inspectors are regularly reversed by their more political superiors when they cite companies for serious or willful violations and recommend fines. Such penalties are reduced to a few dollars or nothing.
Example: an electrician loses his arm at a Wisconsin meat packing plant due to a live electric transmission line. Initially, the company was fined $640 for a “serious violation.” An informal conference later led to dropping the fine.
Example: seven workers suffered lead poisoning at a New Jersey plastics plant. OSHA, based on a paper check of the firm’s last workday injury records, had just declared that the plant did not need a comprehensive safety inspection. Injury records, mostly reflect physical injuries like falls, cuts and traumas. They rarely reflect sickness from chemical, gaseous or dust exposures — the major sources of worker casualties.
Auchter and his superior, Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, have riot issued a single -health standard dealing with any hazardous workplace chemical. Had they continued the work done by OSHA under the Carter Administration, dozens of protective standards against cancerous and other disease-bearing chemicals would have been promulgated by now. Reagan’s OSHA tried to weaken the existing cotton dust and lead standards. Many months have passed with OSHA sitting on proposed standards for grain dust, ethylene dibromide and ethylene oxide.
Workers in the nation’s factories, laboratories and on large agribusiness lands have lost confidence in OSHA’s willingness even to respond to their emergency complaints’. The agency did not even want to give them adequate access to their medical records, though outside pressure to do so is beginning to prevail. Other worker rights under the 1970 law have riot been implemented such as their right to know the hazardous chemicals to which they are exposed at work.
With nearly 14,000 workers killed in accidents, over two million injured and 100,000 worker fatalities from occupational diseases each year, OSHA needs to be mindful of its mandate as a safety and health enforcement agency. Yet somehow Auchter’s “willful violations” citations have decreased over 90% since 1580, the total dollar amount of penalties is down 787 since 1980, “serious citations” have decreased 50% since 1980 and cases recommended to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution are down sharply. Follow-up inspections, which determine whether corrections have been made, were down by 87% in the same period.
Confronted with these figures, Auchter replies that they show his policies of “cooperation” and “voluntary compliance” are working. This view is comparable to taking the federal cop off the corporate beat and then claiming there are fewer arrests because there is less crime in the <corporate) suites.
The Reagan-Auchter legacy will have a destructively long tail. In a recent address discussing the icy indifference of OSHA, Bertram Cottine, former Commissioner of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, said that the present regime is “transferring the costs to the working men and women in terms of illness and injury, increased medical costs and personal loss. Evasion of occupational health needs today merely postpones the inevitable and tragic reckoning in terms of human loss.”‘
By that time the multi-millionaires, Reagan and Auchter, will be in luxurious retirement -Far from the pain, anguish and desperation of these expendable Americans. Would that these two men have had a nobler estimate of their own significance in government.