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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. OSHA (sidebar)

Is OSHA too nit-picky?

Complaints from companies who say they've been unfairly drubbed by OSHA have been heard loud and clear by both Republicans in Congress and by the Clinton administration. Alfred Teo, president of Alpha Industries, says OSHA's problems with his Omega plastics division are "overblown and exaggerated." OSHA levied a whopping $1.386 million fine against Omega on May 16 for 22 "willful" machine guarding violations. Only one thing is not in dispute. Omega should have had machine guards on its 11 printing presses, but did not, failing to install guards even after repeated accidents. But Omega says that mitigating circumstances should have forced OSHA to go easier on the company. When OSHA inspectors visited Omega's Lyndhurst, NJ, plant on November 22, 1994, after being tipped off about a recent accident by local police, they looked at the company's OSHA 200 log, where injuries are recorded. There had been 10 accidents on the plastic bag printing line between October 1993 and November 1994. Those accidents had been accurately recorded by Omega. The latest one resulted from a worker getting his hand caught momentarily in a press, which required him to have skin grafted from his leg onto a 2" portion of his arm. That was done on an out-patient basis; the employee lost two months of work. The man had been explicitly warned by a supervisor prior to the accident not to do what occasioned the accident. Another employee lost the tip of a finger in an accident. 'Mutilations and amputations' When OSHA issued its press release on May 18, 1995, six months after the inspection, its first paragraph referred to numerous employee injuries, including "mutilations and amputations." That was a reference to the skin graft and the finger-tip. Omega officials argue OSHA exaggerated the description in order to score political points with Congress, both houses of which were considering drastic budget cuts for OSHA. Because Omega had not been using machine guards on the 11 machines, OSHA fined the company for 22 (twice per machine) violations, and termed them willful, meaning, according to OSHA official Efraim Zoldan, that the company knew guards should have been provided but failed to make them available despite repeated accidents. A willful violation can carry a fine of up to $70ꯠ per violation. OSHA assessed $55ꯠ for each of the 22 willful violations. It also cited 22 other serious violations at $3ꯠ apiece. The limit on a serious violation is $7ꯠ per violation. OSHA had three or four investigators at Omega continuously for three months after the November 22 visit. Omega complied with everything OSHA asked it to do. If the workplace at Omega was so dangerous, ask the company officials, who don't want to be named, why did OSHA allow the plant to stay open, and why did it wait six months-until a key congressional debate began-to assess the huge fine? OSHA's Zoldan replies that the agency had to build its legal case, get the fines approved first by the regional administrator and then by the Washington top dogs. "That does not happen overnight," he says. "We were not playing political games." Harry Hajinlian, Jr., packaging project manager at Nabisco, finds it hard to believe that a company would ignore so many injuries. He believes OSHA did the right thing. Omega has appealed the fines to an independent OSHA Review Commission.

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