DETROIT — The federal government ordered Chrysler on Wednesday to pay a $910,000 fine for deliberately failing to report a wide range of serious injuries at its Belvidere, Ill., auto assembly plant.
The fine is the biggest levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration against any employer for violating federal workplace standards since Union Carbide was ordered last April to pay nearly $1.4 million, the largest such fine ever.
The government charged Wednesday that Chrysler failed to report in its federal safety logs at least 182 injuries that had been suffered by workers at the Belvidere facility between January, 1985, and last April.
Chrysler, which insisted that it has an "outstanding" safety record at all of its plants, dismissed the Belvidere case as little more than a disagreement over the "interpretation of government guidelines on the handling of paper work." The company has a right to appeal the agency's action within 15 days, but a Chrysler spokesman said the company has not decided whether to do so.
Deleted From Logs
During a detailed probe that began after a worker was crushed to death in a welding press at the Belvidere plant, the agency's inspectors became suspicious of Chrysler's injury records. They found that while the plant employs 3,900 workers, Chrysler's management had reported only 41 lost work days due to injuries for the entire 16-month period, an agency spokesman said.
At least 17 injuries were initially reported on the plant's logs and later deleted; another 133 cases that went unreported involved employees who missed work and received state workers' compensation benefits.
Among the cases Chrysler did not disclose on its injury logs were bone fractures, bruises, sprains, serious back and eye disorders, and hernias, according to the agency. In one instance, Chrysler was cited for failing to make mention of a worker who was off the job for four months with a broken foot.
As a result of its discovery of misleading records, the Labor Department agency said on Wednesday that it was beginning a full-scale safety inspection of the entire Belvidere plant.
Although OSHA officials refused to speculate on Chrysler's motives, leaders in organized labor have charged that companies throughout industrial America are under-reporting injury rates in order to avoid the agency's safety inspections.
Under a policy instituted by the Reagan Administration in 1981, OSHA generally only inspects plants that report injury rates that are above the national average for the economy's industrial sector. The AFL-CIO has charged that the policy creates an incentive for businesses to falsify their records to make their plants look safer than they really are.
"OSHA set up a system to reward people for low (injury) numbers," charged Franklin Mirer, director of health and safety for the United Auto Workers, which represents workers at Chrysler.
OSHA officials conceded Wednesday that the Chrysler plant's reported injury rate was so low that it would have avoided a federal inspection if the fatality had not triggered an investigation.
But Frank White, chief of OSHA's enforcement branch, said the fine imposed on Chrysler should make it clear that the agency plans to crack down on firms that keep misleading records. OSHA's fine against Union Carbide also included heavy penalties for under-reporting of accidents and injuries. The safety violations at Union Carbide were discovered after a toxic gas leak at its West Virginia pesticide plant.
In a statement, John A. Pendergrass, assistant labor secretary for occupational safety and health, added: "We cannot allow complacency by some employers in maintaining accurate and dependable injury reports."