The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has only 1,100 inspectors. There are millions of work places across the country. How should the inspectors be deployed?
For years the agency has been dogged by the problem. Administrators have periodically set up "special emphasis" programs aimed at industries thought to have special problems. Not all have been successful. Now a new one has been begun that may have a major impact.
Last fall the Labor Department determined to send OSHA inspectors systematically through a large sample of the nation's chemical plants, 80 in all, 10 in each of eight regions. It was led to do so in part by the Bhopal disaster -- the December '84 leak of methyl isocyanate from the Union Carbide plant, which killed more than 2,000 people, blinded and otherwise injured thousands more. The following August there was a leak of aldicarb oxide, also from a Carbide plant, on account of which more than 130 people were hospitalized in Institute, W.Va.
The Institute plant was one of the first that OSHA turned to. The results were announced last week. The agency found "willful disregard for health and safety" at the Carbide facility and fined the company a record $1,377,700 -- almost twice the largest penalty previously imposed -- for 221 violations. The case was also referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.
OSHA said that Carbide had used some workers as human "canaries," sending them to sniff out leaks of deadly phosgene gas without respirators. That was the most spectacular charge. It also said the company had "intentionally" underreported injuries at the plant. OSHA officials described that as a possible violation of federal criminal law. One of the reasons OSHA has not paid more attention to the chemical industry in the past is that its reported injury rate has been relatively low. Is the reported rate for the industry correct? The agency doesn't know, but "we are aggressively trying to find out," Labor Secretary William Brock said the other day.
Carbide has indignantly denied the accusations against it, saying most are matters of "paper work" and that "the allegation of complacency with respect to safety is an outrageous misrepresentation of the truth." It has indicated it will appeal the fine. There are procedures for this, and the conflict will take some time to resolve. We don't prejudge the outcome of the appeal. We do think it's a good thing that OSHA is once again showing signs of life.