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Labor Activists Unveil Plaque Honoring Workers Killed on Job


They lit candles. They stood in silence and bowed their heads to honor people who were killed on the job in the Los Angeles area during the last few years.

The list was long and numbing: electrical workers, masons, carpenters, ironworkers. A 36-year-old steelworker named Eddie Amador, who fell to his death when scaffolding broke in Ontario. A 27-year-old social worker named Robbyn Panitch, who was murdered in Santa Monica by a patient who went berserk.

In preparation for national "Workers Memorial Day," labor activists in Los Angeles on Friday unveiled a plaque with the names of 51 local workers killed on the job since 1988. The number represented only a small fraction of the Los Angeles County total, and a far tinier trace of the 3,000 to 10,000 people who are killed in work-related accidents in America each year.

The fact that the number of work-related deaths has never been more than vaguely estimated by the federal government underscored the anger running through Friday's ceremony. That emotion is expected to be prominent in similar rallies and memorials scheduled in several other U.S. cities through Sunday, which marks the 20th anniversary of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Organized labor, which was instrumental in the creation of OSHA and has been forced to defend it through the years against political and legislative attacks by Congress members sympathetic to business interests, is lobbying Congress to dramatically overhaul and toughen the law. Legislation is expected to be introduced next month by labor's Democratic allies.

Labor leaders want a law that would force businesses to more comprehensively report deaths and injuries to the government. They want the Justice Department to be able to file felony charges--something not permitted by the current law--against employers responsible for deaths or disabling injuries. They want all businesses to be required to set up labor-management committees, which would give workers a stronger voice than they now have in most workplaces. They want guarantees that workers who refuse unsafe assignments will not be disciplined or fired.

(California, like about half the states, has its own work-safety agency, Cal/OSHA; but under federal law these agencies must adopt standards at least as rigorous as those of the federal OSHA act.)

"Trying to get employers to change the way they do business by enforcement hasn't worked," said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's safety director. "The law has to take a broader approach to bring about changes in the workplace itself."

While the post-Reagan era has fostered a more favorable climate for health and safety regulation, the legislation faces considerable political hurdles.

Business spokesmen contend that most large companies have instituted sophisticated injury-prevention programs, and they say that labor ignores the fact that increased employee drug and alcohol use contributes to some accidents.

Management lawyers who specialize in OSHA regulation say that some of what organized labor is seeking would revolutionize the character of OSHA. They say it would change the agency from one created to abate hazards through voluntary compliance to one whose prime purpose would be to punish businesses--a change they claim would sharply decrease compliance with national work-safety laws.

The mood at Friday's plaque-unveiling was militantly in favor of such changes. It reflected years of despair on the part of work-safety advocates, who saw OSHA's budget trimmed substantially during the Reagan Administration and have long complained that the White House's Office of Management and Budget routinely delays for years the relatively few safety regulations that OSHA pursues.

The Labor Department's most recent injury statistics, covering 1989, showed there were about 6.3 million occupational injuries in the private sector, almost half of which caused lost work time--57 million days' worth, about 4% more days lost than in 1988.

The annual total of deaths and the estimated 60,000 workers who suffer permanently disabling injuries on the job each year "would not be tolerated if we were in a state of war with another country," said David Sickler, the AFL-CIO's western regional director. "Maybe what we need to do with the Bush Administration is imagine that occupational deaths and injuries are Scud missiles and OSHA reform is a Patriot missile."

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