Sioux City, Iowa, is located along the Missouri River. The river was incorrectly identified in an article Wednesday. (Published 7/ 24/87)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration yesterday proposed a $2.59 million fine against the nation's largest meatpacker for failing to record 1,038 accidents at one of its plants and then hurriedly assembling a "task force of 50" to doctor the records. It is the largest fine ever proposed by the agency.

IBP Inc., a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp., was accused of omitting the accidents from medical logs during a two-year period at its largest plant, in Dakota City, Neb., then adding 832 injuries to the logs a week before federal inspectors gained access to the plant.

"This is the worst example of underreporting injuries and illnesses to workers ever encountered by OSHA in its 16-year history," Assistant Labor Secretary John A. Pendergrass said as he announced the action.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who has chaired hearings concerning injuries at the plant and others in the Midwest, said the testimony evoked the horrors documented by Upton Sinclair in "The Jungle," the muckraking epic that described rampant filth and hazards in the packing industry at the turn of the century. "It's a nightmare, an absolute nightmare," Lantos said.

The packing industry still includes some of the most hazardous occupations in the country and OSHA alleged yesterday that IBP "failed to record even the most serious injuries" suffered by the 2,800 workers at the Dakota City plant.

Sixty percent of the unlisted injuries or illnesses were so severe that the workers were forced to leave their work stations, Pendergrass said. Among injuries IBP allegedly failed to list were knife cuts, wounds, concussions, burns, hernias, fractures and serious wrist injuries known as carpal tunnel syndrome.

In a statement, IBP said it "did not willfully violate" the agency's record-keeping rules and said it would contest the proposed fine before an OSHA appeals panel. "The charges are an indication of inconsistent enforcement by OSHA and the Labor Department of unclear legal requirements," it said.

Terry Mikelson, an OSHA spokesman, said later that IBP was "absolutely" incorrect and that the agency was enforcing "only the most egregious incidents."

The proposed IBP fine came 15 days after the agency proposed a $1.6 million fine, its previous record, against Chrysler Corp. for 811 alleged violations of safety and health standards at its plant in Newark, Del. In the past year OSHA has accused about two dozen major corporations of failing to report all on-the-job injuries.

The issue of workplace injuries has become controversial under the Reagan administration. The agency's congressional critics have said that OSHA has adopted a policy of limiting safety inspections at plants where company records show that injuries are running below the national average of manufacturers.

Lantos, chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee on employment and housing, separately accused IBP officials of making "false and misleading" statements about the company's injury records during a May 6 hearing that focused on charges that the company had maintained two sets of medical records at the Dakota City plant.

"Considering the tremendous time and effort that IBP devoted to preparing for the May hearing . . . it boggles the mind to believe that IBP officials did not know that there was a second log which was presented to the OSHA inspector for review," Lantos said. He said his subcommittee will call the executives back to Washington to explain the discrepancies.

The Dakota City plant, the largest of 15 plants IBP operates in eight states, has been a scene of labor unrest, a condition the company has maintained is the basis of its dispute with OSHA.

Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union were locked out of the plant in December and struck in mid-March, after they rejected a contract that called for wage cuts. The packing industry has been beset by economic problems as declining meat purchases have thrown the industry into a tailspin.

Located in a small Nebraska town across the Iowa River from Sioux City, the Dakota City plant resumed operations in March, processing beef and pork with about 500 former strikers and about 1,500 new workers, according to Al Zack, a spokesman for the union.

Zack and others yesterday credited Labor Secretary William E. Brock for OSHA's crackdown on accident reporting. "He certainly has set a tone that OSHA has heeded and it is welcome," said Zack.

Pendergrass said federal investigators discovered that 832 of the 1,038 unrecorded 1985 and 1986 injuries at IBP had been added to the company's log days before the agency won a subpoena allowing access to the records. IBP countered that the citation "refers only to paperwork issues that have no real bearing on workers' safety and health."