Page 22


Pho to by Tay lo r Jo hnso n A Right To Know, and Little Else CONSIDER THE plight of Dr. Bill Elliot. An assistant director for the Texas Department of Health’s occupational health division, Elliot, a general industrial hygienist, is responsible for administering and enforcing the state’s Hazard Communication Act, commonly known as the “right-to-know law.” Enacted in 1985, the law requires 75,000′ Texas companies to warn employees about the hazards of chemicals with which they work. It also requires that fire departments and the public be told about the chemicals. While labor and environmental groups are delighted to have the law on the books, in reality it’s about as effective as a mute watchdog. That’s because the legislature, in its customary wisdom, declined to appropriate any funding for the act. And that’s what troubles Bill Elliot. “It’s an important law,” Elliot said, “one that could eventually mean lower risk of injury and illness at work.” Yet there is no money for compliance inspectors, no money for training guides, none for clerical help. “We don’t even have the money to mail notices about the law to the employers in the state,” Elliot said. He estimates that about two percent, or 1,500 companies covered by the law are in compliance. The irony of the situation is not lost on him. “Here the legislature goes and makes all these businesses liable for fines for a law they don’t even know exists,” Elliot said. “How can we expect employers to comply with the law if we have no means of directly informing them about the law,” he said. “And how can we expect employees to file complaints if they don’t know about the law.” Despite the lack of promotion and the meager staff Elliot, two other industrial hygienists, and three secretaries work part time on administering the act more and more employers are requesting information. Which is good and bad. take ” At the same time, OSHA has hardly been a regulatory force to be contended with. Established in 1970 to monitor the nation’s 4.6 million workplaces, and to reduce job illnesses, injuries and deaths, it was only during the Carter administration, under Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, that OSHA attempted to vigorously enforce existing health and safety standards, speed up issuance of new standards, and secure new legal rights for workers. That ended abruptly with the election of Ronald Reagan, who, as a candidate proposed to disband the agency, calling it a “champion nitpicker.” A 1985 report by the Office of Technology Assessment, a non-partisan arm of Congress, noted that OSHA inspected less than four percent of the nation’s workplaces annually. The average penalty for a “serious violation,” which is defined as one that creates a “substantial probability of death or serious physical harm,” was about $172. In Texas, violations of federal safety regulations were a contributing factor in the deaths of three of every four construction workers, according to a 1986 Dallas Times Herald survey. The average fine paid in those cases was $350 per worker killed. The Times Herald found that among the 29 states under OSHA jurisdiction \(the others “only Louisiana had a lower rate of safety inspections than Texas, and only Florida has a lower ratio of inspectors to construction workers.” THERE. IS ONE state agency, however, that could step into the regulatory void if it chose to. The State Board of Insurance which regulates the $2 billion workers’ compensation industry is charged under a 1973 law with seeing that insurance companies provide accident prevention programs for its workers’ compensation policy-holders. If an insurance carrier fails to comply, the board is required to revoke its license to do business in Texas. But no policy-holder has ever complained to the board of inadequate services from an insurance carrier, according to Dixie Evatt, head of information services for the board. “If anyone complained to us that they were not getting the services required by law, we would react to that complaint and investigate,” Evatt said. But critics, including Attorney General Jim Mattox and Rep. Lloyd Criss, D-LaMarque, have accused the board of ignoring the law and of worrying Trench cave-in, East Austin, September more about insurance company profits than worker safety. In a joint news conference with Criss last fall, Mattox charged that the board’s primary way of dealing with the increasing cost of workers’ compensation insurance has been to grant rate hikes. The board approved a 30.7 percent increase last year. “Our State Board of Insurance has been a rubber stamp for these increases,” Mattox said. He said board members “take an attitude that their 10, 1985. principal responsibility is to make sure that insurance companies don’t go bankrupt.” Criss, a veteran construction worker and chairman of the House Committee on Labor, and Employment Relations, complained that the board’s policy of “self-regulation” insurance companies are required only to fill out a brief compliance form is “a total abdication” of the board’s responsibility. “There are no investigations,” Criss said. “There are no questions asked. For 6 FEBRUARY 6, 1987