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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

High Risk Amid the High Tech

July 31, 1996

Many companies that make circuit boards--key parts of computers and other electronic gear--are small and scrap for every dollar. Many of their workers are immigrants who for various reasons are afraid to complain about conditions. This is a business that brings to mind the image of workers dressed in white, entering "clean rooms" scrubbed of contaminants. But that comes late in the process. The early stages of circuit-board manufacturing require cutting panels, boring holes and pouring acid, all potentially dangerous tasks. Cal/OSHA, the state's occupational safety agency, says circuit-board manufacturing ranks among the most hazardous of California businesses.

Inspectors in Anaheim, Chatsworth and other Southern California cities where board makers are located attest to the problem. But despite reports of injuries and skirted safety rules, workplace inspections are relatively rare. That should change.

At the current rate, a circuit-board facility can expect to be inspected by the short-staffed Cal/OSHA only about once every 18 years. Employers would be less likely to evade the rules and endanger the health of their workers if they knew that compliance with the law was being monitored more closely.

Inspectors report that larger manufacturers generally live up to the law but smaller operations often do not. A year ago, an Anaheim fire inspector reported that vats of acid at one plant gave off fumes that "burned my eyes when I entered." A state report said toxic and incompatible chemicals were stored, unmarked, next to each other. Owners need to realize that part of the cost of doing business is properly storing chemicals and training workers in their proper handling.

Plant inspections usually result from complaints, not routine scheduling, state workers say. A Cal/OSHA industrial hygienist said his dozen inspections of circuit-board shops turned up an average of 17 violations per shop. That is eight times greater than the norm for all businesses.

Cal/OSHA needs more inspectors and more frequent visits to circuit-making plants, one of Southern California's fastest-growing manufacturing industries.

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