Dangers in the workplace

May 31, 1994

The $7.5 million fine assessed last month against the Dayton Tire plant in Oklahoma City for dangerous working conditions that killed one employee and injured two others won't make a dent in the earnings of the Japanese owner, Bridgestone Corp. It also hasn't made a dent in the firm's callous view of worker safety; the U.S. Labor Department says the cited violations continue.

That is why the government sought a court order for "imminent danger" to force the Oklahoma plant to follow safety rules or restrict operations, a restraining order that stayed in force only one day. While the lengthy appeals process continues, the 1,600-worker plant is operating as usual.

At issue are the "lockout/tagout" safety rules designed to prevent machinery from being turned on accidentally while being serviced or repaired. Workers killed in machinery account for 7 percent of all workplace deaths.

Bridgestone's Iowa plant had been fined for similar violations before the Oklahoma City death last October. "This company absolutely refused to obey the law," said Labor Secretary Robert Reich, personally delivering the citation to the company after talking with its North American chief executive.

Even million-dollar safety fines are a small nuisance to huge corporations such as Bridgestone, which says it has done nothing wrong. A few weeks earlier, the Labor Department's $2 million fine against General Motors for the same kind of fatal violation in 1991 was upheld on appeal.

These incidents emphasize that, despite new rules and tighter codes, a number of employers still balk at implementing them. The serious dangers can persist throughout the appeals process.

Despite passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act a quarter-century ago, workplace safety has been slow to improve. In fact, the government's latest statistics show that the incidence of job injuries and illness is at nearly its highest rate since 1980. Between 1983 and 1991, the rate of U.S. workdays lost to injury jumped by 50 percent.

The Labor Department's decision to seek court injunctions against companies with urgent safety violations, even if judges often seem reluctant to grant them, is entirely appropriate. The stakes in human welfare are too high to permit such employers to defer corrective action through lengthy appeals, and to write off safety fines as a cost of doing unnecessarily dangerous business.

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