Eula Bingham, who spent most of her term as chief of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration chopping away regulations inherited from her Republican predecessors, worries that those same Republicans are soon going to return the favor.
"We have seen them walking the halls here again, quite often recently," she said, as if speaking of ghosts. "They have been visiting and asking questions -- how many Senior Executive Service jobs have you got? How many Schedule C [political] jobs have you got?"
She can feel the cold wind blowing through her agency. "I'm nervous about a lot of things that may happen here," she said, after she vacates the office in about nine weeks.
She thinks it is possible that the incoming GOP team will consist largely of the people who ran OSHA under Presidents Nixon and Ford. It was under them that the agency earned its reputation for pushing regulation to the limits of absurdity, and Bingham said she fears they will carry out their new antiregulation mandate with as little attention to consequences as when they were writing the rules. That would very likely mean an end to some of the carefully drawn regulations she has in place or on the drawing board, regulations that she says are practical and genuinely protect workers.
When Bingham took over in 1977, OSHA had become, according to polls, the most hated agency in the federal bureaucracy. It demanded that business have properly shaped toilet seats, and that employers have proper coat hooks in toilet stalls. It took the agency 35 pages of small type to define a proper exit-sign for a door. It sent bulletins to farmers telling them that cow manure can be slippery.
Before coming to Washington from the University of Cincinnati, where she was a researcher and teacher in public health, Bingham remembers, she experienced the sort of thing that made OSHA unpopular.
"A hospital nearby was cited by an OSHA inspector for not having fire extinguishers exactly 39 inches off the floor. They actually made the hospital hire somebody to come in and remount all the fire extinguishers a few inches from where they were. I was appalled."
Thus, when she got to Washington in 1977, one of her first official acts was to wipe off the books a thousand of these kinds of needless regulations.
Others were rewritten. One set of electrical regulations was cut from 400 pages to 38. "We have tried to set out the objectives -- that a fire extinguisher should be accessible when needed -- rather than naming every specification for carrying it out," she said.
But perhaps her proudest achievement has been the formulation in 3 1/2 years of nine major new health standards to contol such deadly substances, as lead, benzene and arsenic, and five major safety standards, including a revised fire protection standard and rules to help curb the large number of falls from roofs.
As a tag to her brief government career, it was announced last week that she won a Rockefeller public service award, something akin to the Oscar for public servants, for turning the agency to "life-threatening and other important problems in the workplace, while eliminating burdensome regulations the agency had previously imposed on U.S. businesses."
Not all agree that she deserves praise for her stewardship. Industry has fought her on every standard, virtually line by line. In at least one case, involving benzene, the Supreme Court agreed with industry that OSHA had not shown convincingly that the substance in question is a direct, serious hazard, and so regulation of it could likewise not be certain to be useful. The court disallowed OSHA's proposed health standard on benzene.
Courts have so far upheld others, such as the lead standard, which are now in force.
Bingham is afraid that the years of activism in the agency will halt, that the agency alumni she sees in the halls will undo her work and that in the process workers will be left without needed protections.
"The Reagan people have been saying that they are going to have a moratorium on new regulations. I believe them," she said. She listed new health standards that have received a year or more of work and that would have been put into force if she were to stay at OSHA.
They include new rules on asbestos and a standard that would require companies to label hazardous chemicals in the workplace so that workers can know what they are being exposed to.
Bingham also said she fears that a number of existing standards might be crippled by inaction. The cancer policy, which has the legal standing of a health standard, sets out the basic rules for determining what is a cancer-causing chemical and sets up a procedure for regulating those chemicals in the workplace. OSHA hoped to act on three to five of the most potent carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, in the next 18 months.
"But the cancer policy is just a mechanism. If you don't use it, you've stopped it," she said.
Asked which of the standards she thought was most important and wanted to see saved, she paused a while, then laughed, looking down at her hands spread on a plaid skirt. She said she wasn't sure she should tell for fear of making them special targets.
"Oh, what the hell," she said finally. The standards she worries most about are two that do not regulate either health or safety, but give workers the right to keep an eye on the hazards.
"After all," she said, "We have about 1,500 inspectors trying to inspect 5 or 6 million workplaces in America. You can actually get to, at most, 1 percent of all workplaces. So we must rely on the companies and the workers themselves."
One of those regulations gives workers the right to see whatever health records the company keeps on them, and also the right to see whatever monitoring records the company has on their exposure to dangerous substances. The other, not yet completed but scheduled to be put out within a few months, is the requirement for labeling hazardous substances.
Although Bingham has been in Washington for more than three years, she has never moved here. Her home and her three teen-aged daughters are in Cincinnati, where she commuted on weekends to try to cook a batch of meals and freeze tham for her daughter's dinners through the week.
She never moved, she said, because her six predecessors each lasted a year or less. She expected to be on her way home at any time.
While she was here, she added, she gained no further ambitions, and she will return to her old teaching job at the university.
"I want to do just what I was doing. But I don't think I'll use the same class notes now," she said.