Assistant Secretary of Labor Thorne Auchter's discussion of OSHA's current enforcement record ("OSHA Is Not Backsliding," op-ed, Dec. 26) is an apologia for OSHA's dismal enforcement record during the first year of the Reagan administration. It is now clear that the administration envisions OSHA as a passive, laissez-faire agency that reacts to tragedies rather than prevents them.
This is precisely the opposite role from the one envisioned by Congress and the American people when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was overwhelmingly passed by the Congress in 1970. The law mandates a strong and aggressive role for the government, in partnership with labor and industry, in identifying and eliminating workplace hazards.
We might understand the reduced levels of enforcement, which Auchter acknowledged, if we had any confidence in his intention to "offset" the reduced workplace inspections with "better management." But this administration couldn't even wait until the so-called "management improvements" were ready before it dramatically reduced inspections by an average of 19 percent in the first 10 months of 1981.
An even clearer signal is sent by the agency's total lack of progress in controlling the occupation health hazards. Despite the mounting evidence of proliferating dangers in America's workplaces, the Reagan administration has not proposed a single comprehensive occupational health standard.
Moreover, OSHA has attempted to wipe out significant gains of recent years. In an unprecedented action, Auchter asked the Supreme Court to remand to him the Cotton Dust Standard, which was then before the court. The court declined, and approved the standard which, according to testimony, could avoid nearly 75,000 cases of disabling byssinosis. Auchter now plans to re-evaluate the Cotton Dust standard.
OSHA's foot-dragging has also repeatedly delayed implementation of parts of the lead standard. And despite mounting evidence that asbestos constitutes a grave health risk to millions of workers and their families, OSHA has failed to improve the current inadequate asbestos standard. Similarly, the administration has taken no steps to implement OSHA's policy to regulate workplace carcinogens.
In place of these tough standards, the administration asks hazardous industries to regulate themselves. This naive approach ignores the fact that every comprehensive health standard ever promulgated by OSHA has been challenged in the courts by the regulated industry.
Auchter suggests that OSHA will encourage workers and their employers mutually to eliminate hazards, and he stresses the importance of health and safety education and training of employees. Yet, he has slashed OSHA's funding of the "New Directions" education program.
He promises a new management program to "evaluate and respond to serious worker complaints more efficiently." Yet during the first eight months of 1981, inspections in response to worker complaints about hazardous conditions were down an average of 27 percent per month, while the number of backlogged employee complaints has increased by 121 percent!
Auchter promises that employers who "shirk their safety and health responsibilities will face substantial penalities." Yet, OSHA recently offered to reduce the penalities against the operator of a grain elevator in Galveston, where an explosion killed 18 workers and injured 22, from $126,000 to $8,000--a mere $444 for each employee killed. Such insignificant penalities are unlikely to encourage employers in dangerous industries to eliminate hazards.
The price of abandoning the effort to control hazardous occupations will be paid not only in workers' lives, but with billions of tax dollars. As much as $3 billion a year in compensation and medical costs for workers injured on the job is paid by taxpayers rather than by the industries that impaired the workers' health. Having Social Security, veterans, welfare and Medicaid programs pay this enormous cost is nothing less than an unwitting taxpayer subsidy of hazardous industries, and the expense will grow in the future if workplace dangers are not controlled.