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WASHINGTON -- A new federal initiative that targets the nation's unsafest workplaces but also would give most of them a chance to eliminate hazards and avoid comprehensive inspections is fraught with potential problems, employer representatives assert.

Under the Cooperative Compliance Program, which federal safety officials unveiled last week, employers on a priority workplace inspection list could avoid comprehensive inspections by making a top-down commitment to safeguarding their workers. Among other things, those employers would have to agree to implement formal safety and health plans.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have regulatory authority to impose that requirement on employers, though the agency is working on developing such a standard.

Employer representatives say the CCP, modeled after OSHA's Maine 200 program (BI, Oct. 9, 1995), unfairly focuses on employers that have a high frequency of injuries, rather than on those with injury severity problems.

In addition, contrary to the principle underlying the Clinton administration's approach to reinventing government, the CCP is largely a coercive plan, not a partnership between business and government, critics say.

An OSHA spokeswoman agreed that the targeting criteria may not be the best, but she said it is far better than the approach used in pilot programs OSHA has launched in several states.

She also stressed that the program offers employers facing an inspection a good chance of avoiding that headache.

Employers also will be working toward safer worksites and lower workers comp claims, she said. "What have you got to lose? You know you're going to get an inspection otherwise."

Labor, which has criticized the state pilot programs, supports the CCP concept but would like to see more refinements.

The CCP is targeting about 12,000 employers with the worst injury and illness rates, which OSHA derived from survey information it collected earlier this year from 80,000 employers in high-hazard industries.

For those targeted employers, all which have 60 or more workers, at least 7% of their workers in 1996 lost at least one workday due to an injury or an illness. The national average is 3.6%.

The approximately 500 employers with either the highest injury and illness rates or with high rates coupled with significant OSHA histories -- such as willful or repeated violations or fatalities linked to violations -- will be subject to comprehensive safety and health inspections. Those inspections likely will begin in early 1998.

The remaining approximately 11,500 employers will have the option of taking their chances with a comprehensive OSHA inspection or committing to participate in the CCP. OSHA expects that 8,000 to 10,000 employers will agree to participate.

The program will require participants to slash injuries and illnesses by:

Implementing or improving safety and health plans.

Fully involving their employees in those plans.

Identifying and correcting hazards through formal and regular self-inspections.

Providing OSHA with data from their annual injury and illness records.

To verify that participants are complying with CCP requirements, OSHA will subject some participating employers to comprehensive inspections.

But, for CCP participants with 100 or more workers, the risk of an inspection is cut by 70%, OSHA says. For participants that have fewer than 100 workers and that seek free assistance from the OSHA Consultation Program, the risk is cut by 90%. In addition, pilot program results show that CCP participants that still are inspected face shorter inspections and lower penalties if the employers have worked diligently to improve workplace safety and health, OSHA said.

And, OSHA said it will not cite inspected CCP participants for most non-serious violations that the employers promptly correct during the inspections.

Employers that OSHA invites to participate in the program will have until Jan. 30, 1998, to respond. OSHA plans to begin contacting employers this week.

OSHA will not begin its inspections until May 4.

The program will be run in at least the 29 states under federal OSHA's jurisdiction.

"We want to work with employers and help them do the right thing," said Charles N. Jeffress, assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA. "This program offers employers a choice: partnership or traditional enforcement. It also enables us to focus our agency's resources where we can do the most good."

But, some employer representatives, acknowledging that OSHA has to allocate its resources, complain that the program is far from a partnership.

"The problem with the program is that it's not cooperative. It's coercive," said Peter J. Eide, manager-labor law policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

"It's an underhanded way of implementing regulations they have not issued," he said, referring to the CCP's safety and health plan requirement.

Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., is troubled that OSHA launched the CCP without going through the rulemaking process, said Patrick Murphy, Rep. Ballenger's chief of staff.

Congress can do little about that now, Mr. Murphy said. But, the congressman, who is the chairman of the Workforce Protection Subcommittee of the House Committee of Education in the Workforce, will keep a "watchful eye" on how OSHA implements the program.

Rep. Ballenger also is concerned that the list of employers targeted by OSHA will be leaked to the public. That could unfairly hurt the image of those employers that made a commitment to improve their workplaces.

Another "disturbing" aspect is that OSHA has not admitted there were significant problems in its pilot programs, particularly in how employers were targeted, said Margaret Menge, associate director-employment policy with the National Assn. of Manufacturers in Washington.

For example, in Maine and in Missouri, where OSHA ran but later withdrew a similar program, essentially the largest employers were targeted without regard for how safe their workplaces were, Ms. Menge.

Some critics question how well OSHA has refined how it targets employers. The lost workday calculation OSHA is using is a measure of frequency, rather than severity, they point out. That calculation is admittedly more refined, however, than simply using total claims.

Labor is concerned whether any surveyed employers underreported injuries and illnesses, said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO in Washington.

She also would like to see OSHA target employers based on more than one figure. Among other things, OSHA should factor in a worksite's health risks and track workers who were exposed to those risks but did not develop problems immediately.

Still, the CCP's targeting and enforcement approach is much stronger it has been in the pilot programs, Ms. Seminario said.

Even NAM's Ms. Menge said there may be no better way to target employers. "You really are probably doing a decent job of getting at people who need help."

The OSHA spokeswoman said the program is not designed to be a true partnership, but a targeting and enforcement tool with a "partnership component."

Those complaining that the agency did not subject the plan to a rulemaking process are "very confused," she said.

Previously, the targeted employers "would automatically get an inspection. Now they've reduced their risk if they're willing to follow the program. I really don't understand that criticism," she said.

The spokeswoman agreed that targeting employers based on the severity of injuries at their worksites would be preferable. But, she said that would be difficult to calculate.

As for requiring employers to implement safety and health plans even though OSHA has no standard for such plans, OSHA has offered safety and health plan guidelines since 1989.

She also said that results from pilot programs show a strong link between such plans and lower injury and illness rates.

The safety and health plan requirement does not bother Lance J. Ewing, chairman of the Health and Safety Committee of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.

"That's what many employers are trying to do or should be looking at," said Mr. Ewing, loss control administrator for the Philadelphia School District.

Likewise, OSHA does not have an ergonomics standard, but many RIMS members have implemented their own ergonomics programs, he said.

The Alliance of American Insurers is scheduled to meet with OSHA officials next month to fashion an arrangement for how the insurance industry "can help companies get through the program," said Keith Lessner, vp-safety and environment in Schaumburg, Ill.

Some dramatic successes already have been seen in the pilot programs, federal officials noted in unveiling the CCP program.

At that press conference, Bill Mierow, manufacturing manager for EZ Painter Corp., said the Milwaukee-based company cut its workers compensation costs 70% by participating in the Wisconsin 200 pilot program.

Still, the program may present tough cultural problems for some employers, pointed out attorney Charles Chadd, who represents employers in OSHA matters.

He said he "wouldn't be surprised" if top management at many of the targeted employers are not involved in safety and health issues. "And, many companies don't use employee involvement as a tool in management."

For those employers, participating in the CCP "will require a cultural change." In some cases, company culture may be "an impenetrable barrier" to program participation, he said.

"Before they commit, they better make sure it's a commitment they can fulfill," Mr. Chadd advised employers.

Mark A. Hofmann contributed to this report.