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Worker protection bills flounder


WASHINGTON -- Legislation that would protect federal workers from workplace dangers is in danger itself as the current Congress draws to a close.

Chances are slim that either of two worker safety bills pending in the House and Senate will be passed in the month or so left in the session, Democratic congressional staffers and lawmakers say. They blame Republican legislators and the Bush administration.

The legislation would force the 120 widely scattered federal agencies to correct safety violations or face penalties. Under existing law, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cannot force the agencies to comply with its rules. As a result, approximately 3 million federal workers are denied the OSHA protection afforded private-sector employees.

The measures also would require tougher and more frequent inspections of federal work sites. Agencies with sites employing more than 11 people would have to establish employer-employee safety committees at the sites. Currently, only a handful of federal agencies have such committees.

The legislation would also extend OSHA coverage to state and local government employees and would protect "whistle blowers" who report safety violations at their work sites.

The Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources will consider the Senate bill on Sept. 16. The panel was forced to postpone action on the measure when all seven Republican members failed to show for an Aug. 12 meeting.

Afterward, Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski blasted the Republicans for their "petulant" attitude, and accused them of going "on strike" when the health and safety of Americans was at stake.

While the Republicans are expected to attend next month's meeting, a committee staff member was pessimistic about the bill's chances. "You have to be realistic about the time that's left in the session," the staffer said.

The House bill is more likely to reach the floor, but few believe it will become law this year either. Republicans "oppose everything in the bill . . . and the business community is violently opposed to any sort of regulation," said an aide to the House Education and Labor Committee. President Bush has promised to veto both bills.

Backers of the measures promise to resume their fight in the next Congress. In the meantime, federal workers will continue to do dangerous jobs with little or no OSHA protection, according to lawmakers and union representatives.

According to a recent congressional study, 512 federal workers have been killed on the job since the government began tracking such incidents in 1988. That number is probably understated because it doesn't reflect deaths resulting from occupational diseases with a long gestation period, such as asbestosis, the study said.

At a May 1991 hearing of the House Civil Service Subcommittee, witnesses described case after case of federal employees killed or injured due to inadequate safety standards:

* An Air Force worker said he lost 37 percent of his lungs from poisons he was forced to inhale while sealing missile silos.

* A U.S. Customs officer was killed after he was snagged in the window of a car driven by a drug smuggler speeding away from a checkpoint. Workers had asked for tire shredders and guard bars at the site before the incident.

* Eighteen months after explosions at three military bases killed one worker and injured 11 others, government regulators reported that safeguards to prevent such accidents still had not been adopted.

The Bush administration maintains that the measures would impose bureaucratic burdens on agencies, and opposes the extension of OSHA coverage to state and local employees and the mandatory employer/employee committees.

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