Although the government enforces tough health and safety regulations on industry, the accident and disability rate in certain federal operations is higher than in some combat training suits of the Army and Marine Corps.
Complaints of work-related illnesses come not only from worker in industrial activities but also from white collar professional in Washington offices. They have charged that the poor design of some buildings allows auto exhaust fumes and chemicals from workshops to build up to dangerous levels during the workday.
Uncle Sam's relatively poor, and costly, safety record, is coming under the spotlight. The push results from new safety interest by the federal labor movement, the concern of the White House and a multimillion-dollar employe lawsuit that has jolted the Air Force.
Within the past few weeks a group of Air Force civilians in Utah has gone into federal court in Ogden, demanding a 4.5 million payoff for allegedly unsafe working conditions they claim have caused an abnormally high rate of cancer and nervous disorders in employes. Workers in other Air Force maintenance units are watching the progress - as is the Air Force itself.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest civilian employe union, is planning to set up a task force to study health-safety problems. AFGE may establish a flying squad to investigate worker complaints. A group of union officials from the Labor Department will meet with AFGE President Kenneth T. Blaylock today to discuss what they view as health and safety threats to inspectors assigned to monitor migrant worker camps.
Meantime in Utah, the Air Force has been slapped with a lawsuit by three employes. They assert that unsafe working conditions and chemicals have caused hundreds of present and former employes to contract cancer, and suffer personality changes. (WRC-TV federal reporter Stan Bernard went to Utah recently. He aired a series of reports that caused the White House to speed plans for a new executive order covering health and safety conditions. NBC plans to use part of the Bernard series next week on the Today Show.)
The AFGE contends that hundreds of its members, other federal employes and private workers have been killed, maimed or made seriously ill by unsafe working conditions. The complaints cover working conditions in grain elevators, coal mines and many blue collar maintenance operations. Along with other federal unions the AFGE is also compiling a list of problems in white collar operations, where employes believe pollution has caused an increase in various diseases.
In December and January, in two accidents, 25 persons were killed in explosions and fires in private industry grain elevators in Galveston and New Orleans. Thirteen of the dead were Agriculture Department inspectors who were also union members.
The union charges that the buildup of the explosive grain dust was avoidable. The government originally fined the grain elevator operators about $40,000, but reduced the penalties when they complained the fines were too stiff. Because of heavy demand for grain exports, some grain elevators are working round-the-clock.
Agriculture inspection teams in some areas are working double shifts, seven days a week. Their primary concern is to see that grain is free of foreign matter, and is of the quality claimed by the producers, before the corn, wheat, soybeans and other grains are exported.
Meantime, postal workers and their unions are pressing for safety improvements in the USPS that has one of the highest accident and disability rates in or out of the federal service.
New postal bulk mail centers - actually giant factories for processing packages - have introduced heavy-industry type safety problems. The demands for improvements in working conditions at the BMCs was one of the underlying reasons that most of the recent postal wildcat strike activity took place in New York, California and suburban Washington where some of the big mail factories are located.
Congress in the past has charged that there has been abuse of government disability retirement rules in the Postal Service. But the high accident rate - from dog bites and falls to factory-type accidents - has triggered a new demand for safety improvements.
Neil Breeden, president of the AFGE local at Hill AFB in Utah says the lawsuits stem from working conditions in the 1960s and early 1970s that subjected maintenance workers to heavy doses of cleaning solvents suspected of causing cancer.