IN THE BUSINESS world, where "OSHA" is often regarded as a dirty word, there have been some wry smiles lately. For the Navy, the Army (until Secretary Clifford L. Alexander intervened) and other agencies have been resisting the efforts of Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors to poke into the working conditions they provide for the civilian employees. Businessmen aroused by OSHA are delighted to find allies inside the government.
The objections of the federal agencies are, of course different from those of business. The agencies contend that if one part of the governmet - the agency itself - is already responsible for the health and safety of particular employees, it doesn't make sense to have a second part checking up on the first. But that is ludicrous.
There is no reason to believe that working conditions are any safer in a munitions plants, owned by the Army than in one owned by, say, Dow Chemical. Nor is there any reason to believe that the Navy is trying harder to protect its employees than are some privately owned shipwards. Indeed, there is some evidence that suggests government-owned plants are among the most dangerous in the country.
The taks that Congress assigned to OSHA is to protect the health and safety of employees as best it can. It is reasonable to argue, as some businessmen do, that the federal government ought not to be doing that jon but should leave it up to employers and state governments. And it is legitimate to complain, as some do, that the federal inspectors don't understand the problems and are nit-picking corporations to death. But it is absurd to argue, as the Army did at Radford, Va., that the inspectors should be barred from a munitions plant operated by the Hercules Corporation solely because it is owned by the Army.
If the Army, Navy and other federal agencies are doing as good a job on health and safety matters as they say they are, their facilities should pass OSHA's inspections with flying colors. If they aren't, the workers are entitled to the additional protection the inspections would provide. In a program like OSHA's - to which so much of the business world has objected so violently - government-owned plants ought ot be guinea pigs, not exceptions.