Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman made a direct appeal to the incoming Reagan administration today to uphold the state's controversial worker safety program, which has been condemned as lax and ineffective by local Northern Virginia officials and other critics.
Coleman's action, the latest effort by conservative Virginia Republicans to present the new administration with a "wish list" of federal actions they want rescinded, was immediately branded for labor union officials as a political ploy to gain business support for his expected gubernatorial campaign next year.
"He's playing politics with workers' lives," said John Quackenbush of the Washington Building Trades Council of the AFL-CIO."The Virginia program is a complete disaster."
Coleman said he wants Reagan's appointees to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to quash challenges to the state program from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Quackenbush's council and two other labor union groups, as well as drop the agency's own objections to the program.
"President Reagan is committed to reducing burdensome regulations and to giving more authority to the states," Coleman said. "Virginia is doing a good job with its safety program and there is no justification for OSHA's demands."
The Virginia program came under heavy attack last year following what Fairfax County officials called an "epidemic" of worker deaths in the area's booming construction industry. At least 15 workers died over a two-year period in Northern Virginia, according to state records. The records also revealed that the state's safety inspection crews were so understaffed they visited only about 2 percent of area construction sites.
"When Virginia ran the program, we had virtually no inspectors here and that's why my son was killed," said Judy DeGroot of Annadale, whose 25-year-old son Michael and a close friend were buried alive in an excavation trench two years ago."Turning this thing over to Virginia is like legalizing murder again."
OSHA officials have withheld approval of the Virginia plan for several years because it relies on the state's 128 general district courts for enforcement, rather than a system of admnistrative law judges more versed in safety statutes.
"It's just too sophisticated for courts that usually deal with divorces and car accidents, and we'll never approve it," OSHA regional administrator David Rhone said in an interview before last week's election. Rhone was not available for comment today.
State and federal safety agencies now share jurisdiction in Virginia, an uneasy coexistence that state officials resent. Coleman said he believed that if OSHA were to take over safety inspections completely, it would provide even fewer inspectors than the state. He called federal objections to the Virginia enforcement setup "nitpicking."
Construction safety has become a highly publicized issue here, with Northern Virginia builders -- some of them major GOP campaign contributors -- joining Coleman and Gov. John N. Dalton in opposing a federal takeover. -One month after the builders held a private meeting with Dalton last year, Coleman filed a federal suit to force OSHA to give final approval to the Virginia program. The suit is still pending.
President-elect Reagan has often criticized OSHA and suggested returning worker safety responsibilities to the states. A spokesman for the Reagan transition team said it would have no comment on Coleman's request.
Earlier this week, a transition team official turned aside a suggestion by Fairfax County Board Chairman John F. Herrity, a Republican, that the incoming administration drop a federal race discrimination suit against the county. The Reagan official, Loren Smith, said such suits should be settled in the courts.
The Fairfax supervisors implemented their own construction safety program last year after deciding that the state was not doing the job. In setting up the operation, the supervisors ignored a Coleman legal opinion that the county had no authority in the area of worker safety.