The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's three staff physicians and the director of its technical support directorate have all resigned or plan to soon, apparently because of disagreements with the policies of OSHA Administrator Thorne Auchter.
The three doctors would not say publicly why they were quitting, while Hays Bell, head of OSHA's Directorate of Technical Support, said he wanted to work for private industry. But off-the-record interviews with OSHA employes indicated that OSHA's medical staff feels Auchter has neither sought nor listened to its advice when making decisions about health.
"Decisions at OSHA are not being made on the basis of health issues," one doctor said yesterday. "The professional environment at OSHA has become unacceptable."
Another doctor said: "Scientists and doctors are no longer being sought out for advice and have become uncomfortable with decisions being made here. They are concerned about their reputations and what's being done by this administration."
Auchter was out of town and could not be reached for comment yesterday, but his chief deputy, Mark D. Cowan, said he was surprised by the technical staff's off-the-record comments. "None of these individuals expressed dissatisfaction with the administation, Mr. Auchter or myself when they resigned," Cowan said. "In fact, Dr. Bell went out of his way to say that he wasn't leaving because he was dissatisfied or because of any problems."
Charges that Auchter had ignored the technical staff are "ridiculous," Cowan said. He said the OSHA chief made a special effort to include OSHA's three doctors in decision-making procedures that "they usually wouldn't have been invited to attend."
Bell, who was hired in 1978 to create the technical branch and who recruited all three of the staff's Harvard-trained doctors, said, "I have been here four years and have now been offered a good job in private industry, a step I think it is time to take."
Adding that "all of us have reputations and careers to protect," Bell said a newspaper story about possible problems would not help anyone.
Some of Bell's colleagues disagreed. "When four scientists decide to quit an agency at the same time, you've got to wonder why," one of the doctors said.
Cowan said it was not uncommon for OSHA's health policy staff to resign after a new administration takes office. He said the staff has a high turnover rate because the doctors and industrial hygienists can earn more money in private industry.
Bell has accepted a job with Eastman Kodak. Patricia Sparks, the acting director of the Office of Occupational Medicine, has resigned to take a job at Burlington Industries, and David Logan, another doctor, has taken a job with Mobil Oil. The third doctor, Victor Alexander, confirmed yesterday that he intends to resign, but did not say where he planned to go.
One example cited by disgruntled employes of problems between Auchter and the technical staff was his recent decision to modify the agency's lead standard. Among the suggested changes was a proposal to drop the now-mandatory ZPP (zinc protoporphyrin) blood test, which is an indicator of high lead levels in a worker's bloodstream. Auchter suggested dropping the test, employes said, without consulting OSHA doctors about its medical value.
Auchter also angered the technical directorate, employes said, when he refused to set emergency standards for three possible cancer-causing workplace chemicals despite documentation from the technical staff about the danger of the chemicals, formaldehyde, ethylene dibromide and ethylene oxide.
Cowan said Auchter met with the medical staff and took their views into consideration when making the decisions. Cowan said the examples cited by the disgruntled employes were the "business of the Directorate of Health Standards," not the technical directorate.
The technical directorate, one of seven in OSHA, is responsible for testing and analyzing toxic substances and health hazards and investigating medical problems at workplaces.