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Share the task of job safety

At first glance, it is the type of proposal that might well invite suspicion from organized labor. We refer to the administration's novel suggestion that many companies should be asked to take over some of the routine job-safety and health inspections now handled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA.) Would not such a policy, the critics ask, merely scuttle or, at the least, sharply dilute safety inspections by firms that have been only too eager to scrap the entire controversial safety agency?

Yet, there is something to be said for the Labor Department's plan. Under it, firms that have proven safety records would be asked to take over routine inspections during a one-year trial period. The purpose would be twofold: to take some of the workload off OSHA's relatively modest inspection force; and to enable the embattled safety agency to concentrate on inspections in those industries and firms that have been shown to have serious safety and health problems.

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Such a targeted approach seems reasonable in this period of budget constraint and lessened public support for direct federal intervention in the business sector. What is also interesting in the plan is its call for establishment of joint management and worker committees in large industrial concerns to write safety rules and then ensure compliance with them. Such ''participatory'' management, common in European nations, is long overdue in US industry. It should also be noted that the 1970 legislation setting up OSHA provided for voluntary programs, but no administration to date has sought to put such programs together.

Perhaps the best reason for considering such a targeted approach is that some industries and firms do have a far better safety record than many others that are in more hazardous pursuits. Given the relative small size of OSHA (with positions for some 1,200 inspectors), plus the fact that there are over 3 million workplaces in the US to inspect, one can sympathize with the frustration of the OSHA official who said it would ''take us 50 years to cover every establishment.''

So long as the voluntary plans do not prevent employees from complaining to OSHA about alleged safety violations (a policy that agency officials say will not be changed), the year-long experimental program should not be rejected out of hand.

Labor groups have until mid-March for public comment on the proposal. Their concerns should be given serious attention by the administration.

There, of course, must be no turning back of the clock on efforts to maintain the strictest safety standards in the workplace. OSHA, for all of its problems in the past decade, has filled a crucial role. The objective should be not to destroy the agency -- what could be more important to workers after all than job-related safety? -- but to make certain that the agency is run as efficiently as possible, and is able to fulfill the mandate for which it was established in the first place.

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