When the Reagan administration embarked on its regulatory relief mission, one of its main targets was the whole range of labor-related regs. Those regulations dealt with subjects ranging from affirmative action to teen labor to health records to safety inspections. Organized labor has considered many of those programs vital to the well-being of the American worker, but industry has often viewed them as a ball and chain it is forced to drag around.
The Reagan administration has had only mixed success in its efforts to free industry from "undue government interference" in dealing with its employes, but not for lack of trying. For instance, a regulatory change weakening a law setting minimum wages on federally financed construction projects has been blocked, at least temporarily, by the courts. And public protests have stopped -- at least until after the fall elections -- efforts to reduce affirmative action requirements on federal contractors and to allow teen-agers to work longer hours.
However, the administration has made progress on some less sexy, but potentially significant, issues. For instance, many firms have long complained about the paper-work burden imposed by the federal government. In June, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a proposed rule that would free nearly half a million companies from having to keep records of work-place injuries and illnesses. The agency said the proposal would eliminate "unnecessary paper-work burdens" in low-risk industries.
A few weeks later, OSHA proposed another rule that would significantly reduce the medical records that many of the remaining employers would have to keep. The number of toxic substances on which records must be kept would also be cut -- from 39,000 to 3,500. The amount of time medical records must be kept after an employe has left the company would be reduced from 30 years to five. Records of first aid and emergency treatment would no longer have to be kept. And firms would no longer have to keep records on employes whose work involves only occasional exposure to toxic substances.
OSHA also continues its review of its lead standard, carcingen policy and cotton dust standard. But observers don't expect any startling changes before the November elections.
Meanwhile, over at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the safety standards designed to protect underground coal miners are being reviewed, much to the dismay of the United Mine Workers. The agency says it wants to eliminate unnecessary reporting and record-keeping requirements, delete irrelevant standards and update standards to conform to technological developments. The UMW, however, says the agency is trying to dismantle the government's stringent mine standards. The comment period on the revisions was recently extended until Nov. 15.
Asked where he thought worker safety stands today, OSHA administrator Thorne Auchter said, "OSHA is finally fulfilling its promise -- to become the effective, efficient force for worker protection that Congress intended. At long last, the agency is actually delivering the kind of professional, nonadversarial safety and health services that make a difference at the work-place level. As a result, we believe the American work force is better protected -- and American taxpayers better served -- than ever before."
Not surprisingly, George Taylor, the AFL-CIO's top health and safety official, has a different view: "The name of this whole game is dollars." He said strict regulations, particularly health-related standards, would cost industry a considerable amount of money, and that could cost the Reagan administration votes.