OSHA to step up policing of workplace safety violators

White House to give agency added powers

March 11, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Bush administration is to announce today policy changes that it says will give the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration more power to crack down on companies that persistently flout workplace safety rules.

Under the new policies, OSHA officials will be directed to conduct more follow-up inspections of companies that commit safety violations of "the highest severity," according to a memorandum obtained by The New York Times.

Companies that fail to correct violations will in some cases find themselves facing contempt-of-court orders from federal judges to force action. The legal threat will be buttressed by a better-coordinated enforcement approach on the part of OSHA inspectors, who will be required to link more thoroughly incidents at all work sites owned by the same "overall corporate entity."

Currently, follow-up inspections are relatively rare, contempt orders are all but unheard of, and little effort is made to coordinate inspections of large, complex corporations that have work sites spread across several states, often operating under different corporate names.

In an interview yesterday, John L. Henshaw, the OSHA administrator, said the changes are prompted by a recent New York Times series examining McWane Inc., a major manufacturer of cast-iron sewer and water pipes that has one of the worst workplace safety records in the nation.

The series reported that McWane, a Birmingham, Ala., based company with about 5,000 workers at a dozen U.S. plants, had been cited for more than 400 safety violations since 1995, far more than all of its major competitors combined. During that time, records show, McWane employees suffered at least 4,600 injuries. Nine workers were killed.

"There are those who, despite OSHA's enforcement and outreach efforts, continually disregard their very basic obligations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act," Elaine L. Chao, the labor secretary, said in a statement released yesterday. "This enhanced enforcement is meant for them."

Henshaw said the policy changes are aimed at one of the most glaring regulatory deficiencies highlighted by the McWane example. As OSHA's investigation files showed, McWane workers have been maimed, burned, sickened and killed year after year by the same uncorrected patterns of safety and health failures. Yet regulators in far-flung offices never joined forces, either to recognize or end these patterns.

The policy changes, which can be carried out without alterations in law or regulation, will put "more teeth" into OSHA's ability to police companies that continually defy workplace safety rules, Henshaw said.

He stopped short of endorsing even tougher measures that some members of Congress have proposed to prevent more of the kinds of deaths that have been documented in McWane plants and elsewhere.

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