Lives in the balance -- Corporate vs. public research

By Phil E. Benjamin, in People's Weekly World,
16 September, 1995

The attempt by Republican members of Congress to pay back their corporate sponsors by passing the anti-worker Ballenger Bill (HR-1834) which guts the Occupational Safety and Health Act must be defeated.

It is ironic that Cass Ballenger comes from North Carolina, the site of the infamous Hamlet fire where 25 people burned to death at a chicken processing plant because the company kept the exits locked. Ballenger's answer to corporate greed is more of the same.

One provision is of special concern -- the one that eliminates the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Because it provides the independent medical and scientific research that is needed for OSHA standards and enforcement, this little-known federal agency might be called the heart and soul of OSHA. Given the propensity of the Clinton White House to cave in to corporate desires when it comes to enforcement of health and safety regulations, it is especially important that the legislation be defeated in Congress.

Before passage of OSHA in 1970, the basis of medical and scientific research into industrial disease and illness was determined by corporations themselves. This led to the unchecked use of asbestos, vinyl chloride, lead and the unchecked spread of occupational disease and illness caused by their use.

The epidemic of industrial cancers that killed and disabled millions of workers over past decades can be laid at the doorsteps of corporate scientists and physicians. Their causes were, more often than not, hidden from public view until the 1970s and the passage of OSHA and related legislation, such as the Environmental Protection Act.

"Experts" cited the "bad habits" of workers as the reason for early death and disability. Although there was a federal health agency that was supposed to protect workers, it did not have the legislative mandate to be independent of the corporations. Corporate has-beens who staffed the agency as a payoff for past service made sure that federal research mirrored corporate findings. For decades this method was very successful for the companies.

Labor and independent medical/scientific activists wanted a different approach and finally forced Congress to accede to their demands. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was given that independent mandate in1970 and corporations have been attempting to kill it ever since. Now, after the1994 elections, they see new opportunity.

A major ingredient in the NIOSH mandate is its regional office structure. These are used by labor and community activists to answer questions dealing with workers' health. Corporations targeted these local offices in the 1970s and most of them were eliminated. They must be reestablished, under the wing of a strong NIOSH national office. In the 1980s the Reagan/Bush administrations began privatizing NIOSH by subcontracting research into chemicals and other dangerous substances to corporate think tanks. This began the process of turning industrial occupational research back to the polluters. The Ballenger Bill will finish the job.

Although the Ballenger Bill may have been introduced by a North Carolina congressman, the creator of the legislation is Dorothy Schrunk, a former head of OSHA who is a consultant to United Parcel Service. UPS, an outfit that is in direct competition with the United States Postal Service, makes money well beyond anyone's imagination. In the past UPS chose to hide their political power. Recently that has changed.

The Washington Post reported that UPS was enraged by OSHA's attempt to fine them for violations of record-keeping and ergonomics rules proposed by NIOSH. It is a widely held view that UPS is using its ties to the White House, key members of both parties in Congress and to agency heads to kill NIOSH and remove the specter of a costly ergonomics rule.

The Post story didn't stop UPS. The company provoked a one-day strike by the Teamsters Union when it unilaterally lifted its per-package weight restrictions. Clearly, a Congressional investigation is needed to expose the profit-thirsty, power-hungry ways of UPS and their over- and under-handed ties to Congress.

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