The Press and the President

There are certain questions, which by custom and practice, White House reporters do not ask the President. What are these questions? For starters, questions about the government’s enforcement of laws against corporate crimes, fraud and abuses are not part of the routine.

When can you remember hearing a reporter ask any President about the auto safety, drinking water safety, food and drug safety laws, for example? Since 1970, I believe only one question has been asked about auto safety — a situation touching on the fourth leading case of fatalities in the United States.

When Presidents are not asked such questions at these nationally televised press conferences, they take less interest in the missions of such agencies under them. The agencies, being less visible, do not feel the urgency that would flow from the boss being asked how they are doing before a national audience. The press watching the news conference has-nothing to follow up if the President’s answer or non-answer hasn’t put the issue into play, so to speak.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is an example. Long misdirected and politicized by Nixon and Reagan, OSHA has undergone .a modest enough enforcement revival to place in relief what is not being done to modest revival is relative indeed given the annual casualty toll; conservatively estimated, in workplaces of 10,000 fatalities, 70,000 permanent disabilities and 9 million injuries.

In a new survey by the Multinational Monitor Magazine (April 1991 issue), the country’s ten largest Corporations were cited for repeated violations of workplace safety standards by OSHA. General Electric was cited 1,400 times between 1982 through 1990. By comparison IBM was cited only 15 times.

Penalties were imposed in only 382 out of 1495 citations against General Electric. Overall, the survey shows that two out of three citations for violations receive no penalties and the initial penalties are often reduced by about half before finally imposed. In 86 percent of OSHA’s inspections, penalties totaled $1,000 or less. General Electric paid q total of $151,003 in penalties for all its 1495 citations.

OSHA’s budget has declined in inflation adjusted dollars since 1981. There are now only 1200 inspectors to cover 7 million workplaces. Some workplaces will not see an OSHA inspector in fifty years:

“Voluntary compliance” are the words most heard about OSHA. Joseph Kinney, director of the National Safe Workplace Institute, calls “voluntary compliance” a farce because “a true voluntary compliance system requires verification.” He believes that OSHA inspectors should be stationed at these large customers “on a daily basis” to verify compliance, just as meat inspectors and IRS auditors are permanently assigned.

OSHA issuance of overdue safety and health standards came to a near halt under Reagan’s de-regulation. OSHA hardly conducts any studies to inform workers about hazards they are unfamiliar with at their job site or even to explain why, for instance, an IBM or DuPont receives so few citations, compared with General Electric.

Far greater interest in worker safety could be generated if White House reporters paid some attention to this area. Or, better yet, if President Bush invited workers to have their Own press conference at the White House and ask the questions once or twice a year.

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