Almost every inch of free wall space in Thorne Auchter's office is covered with charts--organizational charts, management theory diagrams and more than 20 computerized, color-coded graphs showing how many work places federal inspectors visit, how many problems they report and how often employers slam the door in their faces.
Like badges on a uniform, the charts reflect how the man responsible for health and safety at 3 million work sites measures his progress a year into the job. They offer clear evidence of what businessmen like about the assistant labor secretary for occupational safety and health: he knows what he wants--and what he wants is less confrontation between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and employers.
Just as clearly, the charts show the traits that antagonize Thorne Auchter's opponents: a tendency to reduce complexities to numbers without nuance, to impose an artificial certainty on things that are difficult to measure. And, perhaps most of all, his belief that employers are willing to provide safe work places with little government prodding.
When he was nominated to the OSHA job, the 37-year-old Florida construction executive took over an agency that has always been a hybrid--part chemist and part cop. It is supposed to set safety standards for such tangible hazards as machinery and scaffolding and such ill-defined ones as airborne carcinogens.
By the end of Auchter's first year, OSHA's cops had put on a decidedly friendly face and its chemists were going over old work, looking at such controversial and expensive standards as the one for worker exposure to cotton dust, a suspected villain in the lung problems of textile workers, and lead, a poison encountered by workers in 46 different industries, from steel making to shipbuilding.
Auchter had his setbacks--a Supreme Court decision on cotton dust that effectively blocked him from applying a cost-benefit analysis to health standards, an embarrassing incident involving the attempted firing of a scientist who allegedly misrepresented agency policy on the cancer-causing potential of formaldehyde, and the loss of 250 positions over two years because of budget cuts. But his charts show he is still getting much of what he wants.
For instance, Auchter's moves to cooperate with employers--combined with a 9 percent cut in OSHA's $210 million budget--resulted in a sharp drop in monthly OSHA inspections (down 18 percent), particularly in inspections following up on earlier violations (down 70 percent).
However, so-called "targeted" inspections have doubled in the past year. Under these, if an accident is severe enough to keep an employe off the job, it is designated a "lost workday case." If the rate of lost workday cases is higher in one steel mill than the industry average, OSHA sends an inspector. If not, it won't.
Under Auchter, the percentage of OSHA citations contested in court by employers has dropped from 22 percent a year ago to 8 percent today, and the number of penalties levied on employers has dropped by more than half.
"We are trying to minimize confrontational situations," Auchter said in a recent interview. "I don't think they're beneficial for anyone. They're certainly not beneficial for the employer, because ultimately he loses time and legal fees . They're certainly not beneficial for the employe because during the time the confrontation is going on there is no legal requirement that the hazard be abated."
"The impression he's giving the business community is that only a very few serious hazards will be looked at by OSHA and the business community can relax about all but the most serious hazards," said critic Nicholas Ashford, author of a 1976 Ford Foundation study on worker health and safety.
Eric Frumin, a safety expert for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union, objects to Auchter's new requirement that citations involving more than $10,000 in penalties be reported to headquarters, as well as new questionnaires on the inspector's performance that are given to employers and some employes. The message to inspectors, Frumin says, is "ease up."
"I think it's absolutely appropriate to know what's happening out there in the field," Auchter replies. "Ten thousand dollars--that's a huge number . . . . If this encourages some inspector to be more sure of what he's doing, that's fine with me."
It's also fine with the conservative political community. During the transition, the Heritage Foundation set the same goals for the agency that Auchter later did, including expanding the responsibility of state health and safety programs approved and monitored by OSHA. Now the group praises his "strong commitment to achieving these objectives."
While many union safety experts are concerned about the inspections policy, they are more worried about Auchter's attitude towards health standards, his failure to fill the top job in the health standards office until this month, his tendency to look for ways to change existing standards instead of working to set new ones.
Three times during the past year, Auchter was asked to set emergency standards for work-place chemicals --ethylene dibromide, an agricultural fumigant; ethylene oxide, a sterilizing agent, and formaldehyde, a chemical linked to cancer in laboratory animals. Each time, Auchter refused--citing the agency's poor (one for five) record in defending such standards in court.
But why spend scarce staff time reworking the lead and cotton dust standards when they have been upheld by the courts, asks Peg Seminario, an AFL-CIO safety and health expert. And why reexamine the policy used to determine whether a work-place chemical poses a cancer risk?
"When you get new information about a standard, it's appropriate to take a look at that standard," Auchter said. "The standards are a long way from being perfect."
"Health standards are a harder area for Thorne than safety standards," said one longtime OSHA watcher who asked to remain anonymous. "His background is in the construction industry . . . . It's very different managing scientists, managing ideas and intellectual processes."
"He takes things that are very complicated and wants them reduced to two pages . . . . None of this is an exact science," said another employe. Safety hazards--and their solutions--can be more easily defined and the results more easily tracked than the effects of a health standard that could prevent a few cases of cancer two decades hence, the employe added.
"It's not a question that safety is easier to deal with, it's a question of what we're equipped to deal with," Auchter responds. "It would be absolutely inappropriate to devote more resources to the health area than we could show results for."