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Rep. Ballenger,
Have You No Shame?

UE News, June 1996

Rep. Cass Ballenger (R., N.C.) is not a man to let bad enough alone. When he had to abandon his anti-worker "OSHA Reform" Act in March, he pledged that he wasn't giving up -- he was going to introduce yet another "reform" (read: deform) bill soon.

And so he's done it again. This time Ballenger's bill is called the "Small Business OSHA Relief Act of 1996" (HR 3234). This is not just a bad piece of legislation, this bill is a crime against working people and a blot on the conscience of this country.

Do you remember the terrible tragedy of the Imperial Food Products chicken-processing plant in 1991, where 25 working men and women lost their lives in a fire, with many of the doors locked? That plant was in Hamlet, N.C., not so far from the district represented by Congressman Ballenger.

Now it appears, based on an extensive review of newspaper clippings at the time, that the killer plant (if still open) would be exempt from OSHA fines under the bill proposed by the Representative from North Carolina. About 200 people worked in the plant in September 1991 when the fire broke out. The plant had never been previously inspected by OSHA during its 11 years in North Carolina.

According to the new Ballenger bill, any plant with less than 250 workers is classified a "small business" and would be given a variety of special breaks, including a 100 percent exemption from all OSHA fines if the violation is fixed. So the Imperial Food plant with its approximately 200 employees would have been exempt from fines for violations which took 25 lives.

Such exemptions only encourage employers not to eliminate dangerous hazards early, but to wait until OSHA tells them to do so. Today, when employers have to worry that OSHA inspectors may walk through the door any time, and hit them with heavy fines, they have an incentive to remedy problems before OSHA comes. With the elimination of these fines, they are encouraged to sit on their hands until OSHA comes knocking, which doesn't happen very often these days.


It's hard to believe that a U.S. Representative from North Carolina would propose a bill giving breaks to the type of company which harmed so many people, and caused people in his state and his country such anguish. This bill is a slap in the face to the survivors of the fire and to the families of those who died. I am reminded of the words uttered four decades ago in another time of American madness: Mr. Ballenger, have you no shame?

The factories and businesses being "protected" by the Ballenger bill are, as a group, the most dangerous, unsafe and unhealthy plants in the U.S. According to federal OSHA statistics, released in December of each year, companies employing 50 to 249 workers consistently have the highest rates of injuries and illnesses on the job among all U.S. firms. This includes the major divisions of U.S. industry from construction and transportation to manufacturing and service work. For example, in manufacturing, the national injury and illness rate in 1994 was 12.2 per 100 workers for plants with 50 -249 workers. This is more than double the rate of 5.3 per 100 workers for plants with 1-10 workers, and 25 percent more than the rate of 9.7 for plants with 1,000 or more workers.

By the way, 99 percent of all U.S. plants have 250 or less workers, and these plants employ 71 percent of all workers. So most U.S. workers would lose some of their protections under this bill.

Some more Ballenger bill breaks for "small" business include:

  • Elimination of citations and penalties for failure to post and maintain injury and illness records. This means that employers who fail to record injuries or illnesses on their OSHA 200 logs, or who fail to post an annual summary of plant injuries and illnesses, will be let off scot-free. As the AFL-CIO said in a recent statement about this bill, "Workers have a right to know about injuries and illnesses in their workplaces. When employers fail to maintain this information, they should be penalized."

Also, don't forget, most million-dollar OSHA fines are for keeping two sets of injury and illnesses books, one set for OSHA inspectors and the other for workers comp and other uses. So now not recording accidents will cease being a crime -- read this provision as "No more million-dollar fines."

  • Elimination of all citations and penalties for failing to "prepare a written plan or certification?" What plans of this sort are required now? Well, employers now have to prepare written plans for all confined space entries. If these entries are botched, worker can and often do lose their lives. Written confined space plans require employers to think through and plan in advance to prevent potential fatalities.

The new Ballenger bill would effectively make such plans voluntary, and if someone dies -- maybe someone who is reading this column now -- your employer wouldn't be penalized for this, only your family would. Other important written plans now include lockout/tagout plans and chemical process safety plans. Here, too, failure to plan in advance can take workers' lives.

  • OSHA would be barred from adopting any new health and safety standards unless it could prove that the benefits of the standard exceed the costs to employers. The benefits of any standard go significantly to workers. How in heaven's name is OSHA supposed to weigh the benefits of a life not lost, a finger not cut off, a cancer prevented, against the cost of putting in a machine guard or a better ventilation system? It's easy to count the employer costs, but it's hard if not impossible to `count' the worker benefits. How do you think this balance will be weighed in the future, if this bill is passed?

Again, I say, Rep. Ballenger, have you no shame?

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