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There are some problems with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's new workplace safety enforcement program, which gives most of the targeted employers an opportunity to escape comprehensive inspections and heavy fines.

But, the program's deficiencies are not significant enough for employers to miss this opportunity to fix safety and health problems at their worksites with a minimum of government intrusion.

And, we disagree with employer representatives who have suggested that employers, either individually or through an association, ought to wage a court fight over OSHA's authority to implement this program, called the Cooperative Compliance Program. There is reason to believe OSHA is open to reasonable suggestions for modifying the program without employers resorting to costly litigation.

OSHA has targeted about 12,000 employers in the most hazardous industries for the program, unveiled late last month. The 500 with the worst safety records will receive comprehensive inspections. Most of the remaining targeted employers could avoid the inspections and fines 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.

At the companies OSHA has targeted, at least 7% of their employees in 1996 lost at least one workday due to a work-related injury or illness. The national average is 3.6%. But, that measure does not take into account whether those workers lost one day or 101 days.

We agree with employers that OSHA could have done a better job of targeting employers by focusing on those with injury severity rather than injury frequency problems.

Even an OSHA spokeswoman readily conceded that targeting employers based on the severity of injuries at their worksites would be a better approach.

But, she said such a measure would be difficult to devise.

We disagree. We think a better measure could be a ratio of the number of hours a company's workers lost during a year due to injuries and illnesses compared with the total number of hours a healthy workforce would have worked.

Of course, such a formula might need to be tweaked to take into account, for example, light-duty return-to-work programs.

There's reason to believe OSHA would be open to modifying the formula.

That's because the current formula already is a big improvement over the one OSHA used in some pilot programs. Employers in those programs rightfully complained about OSHA targeting employers based solely on the number of injuries at worksites, without taking into account the size of employers' workforces. That obviously put large employers at a significant disadvantage to smaller employers.

Employers should be encouraged that OSHA recognized its mistake in the pilot programs and that the agency acknowledges the current targeting formula is not as good as it gets.

For that reason, any talk of litigation is premature. Employers instead should direct their energies into showing OSHA how to adjust its sights.

In the meantime, the current formula is not untenable. Even some employer representatives have said it will help OSHA do a reasonably good job of snaring employers with significant workplace safety problems.

Employers' other objection to the program is overstated. A major prerequisite for participating in the program is agreeing to establish a safety and health program. Employer representatives describe that requirement as "coercive," "underhanded" and "contradictory" because the agency currently has no authority to instruct employers to establish such programs.

The fact is that targeted employers do not have to join the program, so it is hardly coercive. True, there is a price to pay for not joining the CCP, but a month ago, targeted employers did not have any alternative to comprehensive inspections and fines.

Results from pilot CCP programs show a strong link between increased workplace safety and the establishment of safety and health programs, according to OSHA. And, as Lance J. Ewing, chairman of the Health and Safety Committee of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc., said, many employers already have recognized that such a program is the key to improving workplace safety, regardless of whether the approach is a government mandate.

The requirement indeed may be contradictory, as OSHA will not and indeed cannot fine CCP participants if the agency finds during some verification inspections that the participants have implemented inadequate safety and health programs. Instead, the agency said its inspections will focus only on the end result of the programs: whether there are any hazards in the workplace.

That criticism clouds the big picture: Many employers with workplace safety problems now have an opportunity to fix those problems largely through a home-grown approach with a minimum of government intervention. Employers should not discount the opportunity the program offers them to avoid major penalties -- both monetary and in public relations.

We urge employers to take advantage of the program. In the end, it will be a far more efficient and effective business decision than taking a pass on it.