Top officials of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have "created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation" through threats and disciplinary actions against agency employes who dissent from OSHA policies, the chairman of a House investigations subcommittee said yesterday.
Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.) of the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service made the accusations following disclosures that a top OSHA official had accused an employe of using "communistic" language that sounded as if she were "trained in Moscow," and that OSHA managers discussed a "kick ass and take names" approach to running the agency.
Robert A. Rowland, assistant labor secretary for OSHA, strongly denied Sikorski's assertion, saying the job-safety agency has disciplined approximately the same number of workers as previous administrations, and that such actions are aimed at nonproductive or dishonest employes, not at "troublemakers" or "whistleblowers."
Democrats and labor unions charge that the Reagan administration has been lax in enforcing health and safety laws, has favored employers in its policies, and has failed to move aggressively to develop new rules and standards to protect workers.
Sikorski said he called yesterday's hearing because "I am concerned by what appears from the news reports to be an almost McCarthy-like crusade for political conformity" within the agency. He said OSHA employes told his staff they were eager but "afraid" to testify about agency problems.
Michael Urquhart, local president of the union representing OSHA employes,testified, "We have seen top scientists and physicians forced to resign, or shunted aside. We have seen attempts to intimidate scientists and career staff to dissuade them from carrying out their duties . . . . We have seen politically motivated downgradings, transfers, and reassignments."
The union, the American Federation of Government Employees, named seven OSHA officials, including three regional administrators, whom the union charged were punitively transferred, demoted, or fired, usually because they favored tougher enforcement.
Rowland said any such cases never had been brought to his attention.
OSHA's director of health standards, R. Leonard Vance, was asked by Sikorski whether he told an OSHA supervisor in 1982 that language used by an agency lawyer in drafting a proposed standard for regulating lead exposure was "communistic" and sounded as if the woman were "trained in Moscow."
Before answering, Vance asked for a recess to consult a Labor Department lawyer, and then responded, "I don't deny that . . . . I am not going to deny it."
"What in the world prompted you to use that language?" Sikorski asked.
Vance said that when he came to Washington in 1982, "I was pretty naive about the hardball in this town . . . about the seriousness of every word."
Rowland was then asked by Sikorski whether he had told department officials that "OSHA is full of commies, and I intend to root them out."
Rowland denied that, but in response to further questioning said, "I have heard other people say there are commies at OSHA, in a joking way. And I will not deny that I may have said 'Yeah, you're probably right.' " But he said he did not take the matter seriously.
Rowland's deputy, James R. Meadows, acknowledged that he and other managers had used the phrase "kick ass and take names" at a three-day management retreat last month in Williamsburg. But he said news reports had distorted the intent of the phrase, and had wrongly suggested OSHA would attempt to fire "troublemakers."
Meadows said managers were "encouraged to be more aggressive . . . in handling any misconduct or disciplinary situations," but were cautioned to obey civil service laws.
Sikorski likened some of yesterday's testimony to accusations made by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin in the 1950s, saying, "We have seen . . . 30 years ago, a blacklist utilized, using some of the same terminology we heard today."