The federal job safety agency is overwhelmed with a growing backlog of suspected hazards and worker complaints that it has too small a staff to handle. Assistant Labor Secretary Eula Bingham told a congressional subcommitte yesterday.

Bingham, director of the Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration, said the agency has a waiting list of at least 5,000 complaints from workers and violations reported by other federal agencies. The list has increased "tremendously" in the last six months, she said.

OSHA employs 1,500 compliance officers but would need at least 85,000 to inspect the nation's workplaces thoroughly each year, Bingham testified before a House Education and Labor subcommittee. About 2 percent of U.S. workplaces are visited each year.

The growing backlog of complaints is partly the result of a series of grain elevator explosions that killed 50 people last winter, she said, because OSHA "redirected" personnel from high-hazard industries to intensify investigations of grain facilities.

Although that effort has produced thousands of citations against grain industries employers, it caused other inspections to be neglected, she said.

"We cannot continually inspect every one of the more than 10,000 grain elevators," she said.

In inspections of about "two-thirds of the larger" grain facilities. OSHA found more than 4,800 safety violations, about 3,700 of them serious, she reported.

Of the 798 grain facilities, employing 30,550, inspected, nearly 75 percent had some violations of federal safety standards, she said.

As grain elevators received greater OSHA attention, other hazards, some possibly posing "imminent danger" to workers, may have been neglected, Bingham said.

As an example of neglected hazard, she cited the "horrifying" example of a pesticide packaging plant reported to OSHA by another federal agency. The plant had two inches thick "pesticide on the floor, workers suffering ill effects and the nearest medical attention 10 miles away," she said.

While her goal for OSHA is to have adequate money and staff to respond to worker complaints, Bingham told the panel that her agency also should emphasize the need for educating workers and employers to safety requirements.

"A better-informed workforce will generate more complaints," Bingham said. "We are going to get further behind."