Because of erroneous information provided by the Labor Department, a story Thursday incorrectly reported that employees with 10 or fewer employees would be exempt from a proposed mandatory seat belt rule. All employers would be covered by the rule, but employers with 10 or fewer employees would not be inspected routinely. (Published 7/14/90)

The Labor Department, in a move it claims could save nearly 700 lives a year, yesterday proposed mandatory seat belt use for all private industry employees who drive or ride in a motor vehicle in the course of their jobs -- even if they ride in a taxi.

The new rules proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cover 5.4 million companies with 35 million employees who drive or ride. Employers with 10 or fewer employees are exempt.

OSHA is also proposing that all employees who use a motorcycle while working must wear a helmet, regardless of state law.

Labor Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole said motor vehicle accidents were responsible for 36 percent of all workplace fatalities, killing approximately 2,100 on-the-job workers a year. U.S. road accidents killed a total of 49,000 people in 1988. She estimated the new seat belt rules would reduce the death toll by as many as 685 a year.

"The evidence is clear and profound: seat belts save lives and reduce the severity of injuries, and that is the purpose of the job safety rule we are proposing today," Dole said. "Requiring use of helmets will similarly reduce fatalities and injuries for motorcycle riders."

Thirty-six states now have seat belt laws covering more than 80 percent of the population. But Dole said that despite the laws, fewer than half the people driving or riding in motor vehicles use seat belts. All federal workers have been required to use seat belts on the job since 1986.

Anyone who rides in or on a motor vehicle as part of their job is covered by the proposal. For example, an employer is subject to an OSHA fine if an employee fails to use the seat belts while riding in a taxicab during a work assignment.

Ironically, in such a case the cab driver might be exempt from the rule while the passenger is covered. The rules do not cover self-employed people.

Gerard F. Scannell, assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA, said the new rules would apply only to motor vehicles currently required to have seat belts. "We're not adding a requirement to install seat belts," he said.

The proposal was immediately hailed by a number of safety groups such as the National Safety Council and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as a major new step in the campaign to cut down on traffic fatalities.

Dole said the department had discussed the proposal with a number of industries before drafting it. "There's been a great deal of support and I'm not aware of any opposition," she said.

The secretary apparently had not talked to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Fred Krebs of the chamber's domestic policy section called the proposal "another example of regulatory overkill." He said OSHA should leave the business of seat belt regulations to the state motor vehicle departments.

The National Association of Manufacturers is waiting to state a position until next week's meeting of its policy committee. "We kept hearing it was coming, but we haven't taken a position on it yet," an NAM spokeswoman said.

The AFL-CIO praised the OSHA proposal, but also called for vehicle inspection and maintenance standards to complete the safety process.

Dole estimated the proposal would cost employers about $6 per employee, or $221 million a year. She said the biggest annual cost -- $220 million -- would result from a requirement that all employees be given training on vehicle safety.

Employees hired after the standard goes into effect will not be permitted behind the wheel until they receive training to familiarize them with the vehicle they are to operate, plus safety training that includes information on the effects of alcohol and drugs on driving.

Dole and Scannell acknowleged that enforcing the new rules would not be easy. "We're going to vigorously enforce our laws and regulations," Dole said. "Obviously, there's going to be difficulty."

Dole timed the announcement for the sixth anniversary of the requirement that all passenger cars have seat belts and passive restraints.

After the proposed rules are published in the Federal Register today, there is a 120-day comment period. Follow-up public hearings, if necessary, will be held in early January.