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 By Dick Meister

More than 6200 Americans are killed on the job every year. More than three million are injured, at least half of them seriously. Another 67,000 die from cancer, lung and heart ailments and other diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances.

That's an average of at least 17 workers killed each and every day of each and every year, another 183 dying from job-related illness and 9000 injured.

The financial toll is also high -- as much as $65 billion a year in health care costs and $106 billion in such other costs as lost wages and production.

But despite the heavy loss of life, despite the human suffering, despite the high dollar costs, the repeated demands of organized labor and its allies for government action have been largely ignored.

What they've long demanded is strengthening of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the federal agency, OSHA, that enforces it. For 30 years, OSHA has been the only real tool for protecting U.S. workers from occupational hazards, yet it has been woefully underfunded and woefully lax in enforcing the law.

OSHA has just 2000 inspectors covering the country's six million worksites, and even when they have cited employers for violations, the fines generally have been small and often have gone uncollected. The terrible consequences of the government neglect were made most horrendously clear when fire swept through a chicken-processing plant in Hamlet, N.C., in 1991. There were no windows in the one-story building, no sprinkler or fire alarm system, and doors were chained shut from the outside.

"They were screaming, 'Let me out!' They were beating on the door," according to a news account. "Blackened footprints could be seen later on a door where workers kicked their way out. A padlock was found on a door marked, 'Fire Door -- Do Not Block'."

Twenty-five men and women died, 55 were injured. Not once in its entire 11 years of operation had the plant been inspected. What would have been found, congressional investigators later reported, would have been "a complete lack of even the most rudimentary fire safety standards." Congress, however, has not responded with needed reforms of the job safety law. It has done nothing in the nine years since the carnage in North Carolina, nothing to lessen the hazards faced daily by U.S. workers, nothing to lessen the chances that they also could fall victim to terrible accidents that could easily be avoided.

Some 40 million workers are not even covered by the law. That includes eight million local and state government employees who have 21 percent more on-the-job injuries and work-related illnesses than workers in private industry. Among the others not covered are farm workers, whose occupation is the country's most dangerous, one in which 1500 workers a year are killed, one-fifth of them children.

Extending coverage to the excluded workers is only one of many reforms sought by the AFL-CIO and others. Bills to implement them have been before Congress for eight years. The legislation also would require creation of programs at all worksites to train workers in health and safety matters. Joint labor-management committees would run the programs, investigate accidents, shut down hazardous operations, conduct inspections and otherwise oversee day-to-day safety.

Workers, furthermore, would have the absolute right to turn down unusually dangerous work and to report unsafe conditions without fear of employer retaliation. OSHA would have a much larger budget and the authority to move faster against violators, substantially increase fines and penalties, tighten regulations governing worker exposure to toxins and create health and safety standards and regulations for the many fields of risk now ignored by the government.

The most important of the new regulations would apply to the millions of computer operators, assembly line workers, supermarket clerks and others who suffer the serious neck and back problems, chronically sore arms and wrists and other "repetitive motion injuries" that now account for more than 60 percent of all on-the-job injuries, some of them permanently disabling.

Particular attention also would go to construction workers, who incur one-fourth of all on-the-job fatalities, and health care workers, who are endangered by chemicals that cause reproductive damage. President Clinton came into office pledging to seek such reforms, but he backed off after Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994. GOP leaders quickly introduced a set of counter-measures that would all but repeal the Occupational Safety and Health Act by shifting its emphasis from enforcement to voluntary compliance.

OSHA, for example, could issue warnings rather than citations and dismiss complaints by merely talking with employers or the employers' own safety officers rather than conducting on-site inspections. Other bills would make certain that workers would have virtually no say about health safety. It would be much harder -- if not impossible -- to promulgate new safety standards for workers currently covered by the law or to extend the law to those who are not covered.

It's difficult to predict who might win the currently stalemated congressional battle between the Democratic sponsors of the labor-backed bills to strengthen OSHA and the Republican sponsors of the bills to cripple OSHA.

But is is certain that today, and tomorrow, and on every other day until those demanding a strong and truly effective job safety law prevail, thousands of American workers will needlessly suffer injury and death. ___________________________________________________________ Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor and commentator. c 2000 Dick Meister

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