It seems to have been a busy year for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Labor Department agency that many critics charge was put to sleep six years ago by the Reagan administration.
In moves that have troubled business executives and startled skeptics, OSHA has levied fines against some of the nation's largest corporations as rapidly as a D.C. meter maid can write parking tickets.
Chrysler, Ford, Union Carbide and General Dynamics are among some of the industrial giants that "the new OSHA," as a spokesman puts it, has hit with fines of six figures or more in recent months. In all, OSHA has proposed fines totaling nearly $11 million since spring.
But the record fines have failed to stem sharp criticism of the 17-year-old agency from business, labor groups and some of its longtime advocates.
"You've been duped," snapped Morton Corn, a liberal Republican who headed OSHA during the Ford administration. "I've seen the headline grabbers, but until I see organizational changes, I won't believe anything is happening."
"The Labor Department is making a half-hearted effort to respond to the chaos that has resulted from the Reagan administration's effort to weaken safety enforcement," complained Eric Frumin, safety and health director of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.
Nor are business leaders happy with OSHA's burst of activity.
"They are fining companies for not putting the proper figures in the proper columns and crossing their t's and dotting their i's," said Susan Spangler, associate director of loss prevention and control for the National Association of Manufacturers. Most of the big fines are for poor record-keeping, not job safety violations, she complained.
Behind many of OSHA's well-publicized recent fines, the critics say, have been court decisions, critical internal reports, congressional investigations or union complaints spelling out the troubles that the agency has later cited.
The agency's proposed record fine of $2.6 million against IBP Inc., the nation's largest meatpacker, followed congressional hearings and complaints by union workers at IBP's Nebraska plant, the critics say.
On July 21, the same day the agency announced the fine, a federal appeals court ruling in Washington was sharply critical of the agency's failure after five years to come up with a short-term exposure limit for ethylene oxide, a gas widely used by health-care workers to sterilize medical instruments and linked to cancer and other ailments.
"The history of OSHA's attempt to regulate ethylene oxide is one of hesitation and lack of resolve," the court said.
Earlier this year the Labor Department's inspector general also excoriated OSHA's big New York and Philadelphia offices, saying the management problems there were so serious and widespread that they raised questions about the agency's overall direction. The report spoke of "systemic organizational weaknesses" and said the agency's headquarters staff must address some of the issues.
None of that criticism sits well with Assistant Labor Secretary John A. Pendergrass, who took charge of the agency 14 months ago with a mandate, he says, to make the agency realize it "had the capability of being effective."
"What's new at OSHA is that there is a new secretary of labor and a new assistant secretary," Pendergrass said in an interview, referring to William E. Brock and himself.
The 61-year-old Pendergrass, a former "hazards awareness" officer for Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co., agreed that he and Brock, the former Tennessee senator and head of the Republican National Committee who took charge of the department in the spring of 1985, have attempted to give OSHA new direction.
Pendergrass disputes claims that the agency, charged with developing and enforcing job safety rules, is only following the lead of others with its recent fines. "It's easy to criticize," he said.
In the IBP case, he said the agency had already begun its inquiry of the meatpacker's Dakota City, Neb., plant when a union presented OSHA with reams of health files. Asked about the court's charge that the agency has moved slowly to develop safety standards, he replied that it has moved more rapidly than it did during the Carter administration.
Critics, however, say that hasn't been the case during the first six years of the Reagan administration.
"The question is: 'Where has OSHA been for the past six years?' " countered Sy Holzman, deputy staff director of the House Labor Committee's health and safety subcommittee. "The recent flurry of activity is not going to make up for that."
Peggy Seminario, an associate director of occupational health and safety for the AFL-CIO, said she agreed. "The agency, on its own, is not willing to act," she said.
To many critics, the recent large fines -- most of them for failure to keep proper injury records -- mask other, more serious shortcomings in OSHA. "They're attempting to salvage what everyone has come to know as a failed policy," said former OSHA administrator Corn.
Under Reagan, OSHA embarked on a program of limiting most large-scale plant investigations -- so-called "wall-to-wall" safety checks -- to establishments whose accident records show that more workers are injured there than the national average for all manufacturers. The agency contends that this is not a rigid policy and allows its inspectors to concentrate their efforts in the most dangerous industries.
The critics contend the policy was flawed from the outset because many industries don't keep accurate accident records.
OSHA "had to respond" by launching other investigations last year after Union Carbide Corp., accused of numerous violations at its Institute, W.Va., plant, countered that, in one of the agency's first million-dollar cases, it was singled out for prosecution.
Despite Pendergrass' claim that most companies keep adequate job safety records, there is no dispute that the agency has found a number of major corporations with inadequate records. Pendergrass has called that appalling, saying that such records are essential to eliminating workplace hazards.
Spangler and business executives say they have been appalled that OSHA would base the huge fines on liberal interpretations of vague accident-reporting requirements.
The critics also say OSHA should be more concerned about workplace conditions than paper-work requirements. "What we do need is a broader policy on what's happening in the workplace," Spangler said.
Some business and labor leaders cite oversight hearings that the Senate is expected to hold this fall on OSHA for the recent flurry of safety charges. They also note that Brock, during his confirmation hearings, had proposed to adopt a tougher stance on job safety, and say that, until OSHA began filing charges, the secretary had little to support his claim of a new direction at the agency.
Regardless of their motivation -- Pendergrass said it was not fear of Congress -- the agency seems certain to face major problems maintaining the current level of inspections and enforcement activity.
California, which had used 210 state employes to conduct safety inspections for OSHA, abandoned the job this summer for fiscal reasons, forcing OSHA to transfer workers there hurriedly.
The number of workers needed for California may not seem large, but for an agency that has 2,208 workers, the California work could occupy almost 10 percent of the agency's employes. Pendergrass acknowledges that transfers will hurt the agency "in the transition," but he said he is confident it will win congressional approval for additional workers in California.
Ronald Lang, president of the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association, said he applauds the recent actions as OSHA "off the dime."
He said he could not fault OSHA for adopting "an IRS strategy."
"That is what happens right before tax time every year," he explained. "You start reading all those stories about people who didn't pay their taxes. You could call that a public hanging and it works for the IRS, making the punishment seem much more severe than crime."
The way Lang sees it, OSHA has at least managed to get the business leaders' attention.