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UE NEWS HEALTH AND SAFETY


Maine 200,
Workers 0

UE News, November 1996

Despite labor opposition, the Clinton Administration plans to go nationwide with its OSHA-management cooperation scheme patterned after the Maine 200 program. (This is part of the Administration’s ongoing "Re-Inventing Government" program.) These state-based plans offer OSHA’s cooperation to companies with poor health and safety records and an expressed willingness to improve. In return, OSHA promises the companies few if any inspections.

This is like OSHA going to the "worst of the worst" and telling them, "congratulations, you get your choice of partnership or enforcement," according to Nancy Lessin, director of the Massachusetts Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. The labor movement has opposed such programs since they began in Maine in 1993.

As of June nine states had Maine 200-type programs, including New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wisconsin. More have signed on since then. These state programs often have their own local names, but their intent is the same: more cooperation with employers and less inspections.

OSHA Director Joseph Dear laid this out clearly in a Jan. 15 memo: "OSHA offers qualifying employers: limited scope of inspections; lower priority of inspections; higher priority for technical assistance; cooperative agreements."

How does OSHA identify employers to be in these programs? They look for employers, Dear said, with "a history of failing to correct serious hazards previously identified by OSHA, an abnormally high rate of lost-time injuries or illnesses, those employers whose workers’ compensation number or rates are at the top of the selection list, willful and/or egregious violations or an employee fatality during the previous twelve months."

EMPLOYERS’ CHOICE

These companies are then sent a letter from OSHA offering the choice of inspection or enrollment in the program. (Which would your employer choose?)

What does the employer have to do as part of a Maine 200 program? "The fundamental employer commitment is to develop and implement a comprehensive health and safety program." This includes establishing or improving a site safety and health program, complying with OSHA standards, hazard prevention and control, safety and health training.

Also, workers are supposed to be able to participate "in all phases" of the program, but many report that this is an empty promise. In some states workers have reported that they weren’t even told that their company signed a cooperative agreement with OSHA.

‘TREATED LIKE ANIMALS'

Many of the problems with Maine 200 cited by unions came home to roost in an incident in Maine this past summer. The owners of the DeCoster Egg Farms, the largest producer of brown eggs in the U.S., were fined $3.6 million for a whole series of OSHA violations. These penalties are the third highest ever proposed by OSHA in New England. Labor Secretary Reich accused the company of "treating its employees like animals."

The embarrassing fact for OSHA was that DeCoster had been participating in the Maine 200 program for the previous two years. While blandly assuring OSHA that all was well, plant managers were allowing dangerous, unhealthy conditions to accumulate in the plant.

In August 1995, a worker was killed in a plant accident. When OSHA inspectors entered the plant, they quickly spotted the horrible working conditions and launched an investigation. The result: 37 cases of unguarded machines, 18 of electrical violations and 23 of sanitation and other violations in company housing. OSHA charged that one employee, who had three fingers cut off by a machine used to scrape chicken manure, had to wait hours for medical attention to his wounds.

The DeCoster scandal shows what is wrong with Maine 200 programs. OSHA identifies the worst employers in terms of health and safety and then enters into a cooperative agreement with them based essentially on trust. But if these employers are the worst, not the first, in health and safety, why should they be trusted?

In the case of DeCoster Egg Farms, Assistant Secretary Dear said, "This is exactly the type of employer OSHA was created to deal with." He’s right. So why does OSHA want to get cozy with them?

If OSHA tries to start a Maine-200 program in your state, tell them that your union opposes this program. Send a union delegation to the Regional or Area OSHA office, better yet, a multi-union delegation, and register your opposition.

If such a program already exists in your state, ask OSHA whether your company or plant has signed a cooperative agreement with OSHA. If they haven’t, your local officers and health and safety committee should tell management in no uncertain terms that the union opposes such programs. If management signs an agreement anyway, insist that the union be notified of all program activities. According to OSHA rules, "authorized employee representatives are to receive a copy of all (OSHA) correspondence with employers." Employees are also entitled to all "pertinent" documents.


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