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Week of January 8, 1999

The California Manufacturers Association is citing new evidence that workers' compensation costs in the state are increasing at an alarming rate.

Gas Marketers Condemn EPA Enforcement Plan

The Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America (SIGMA) may sue EPA for not being tough enough on some owners of petroleum underground storage tanks. At issue are regulations which have been in place since 1988, requiring underground storage tank owners to prevent leaks into soil and groundwater. Tank owners were given until Dec. 22, 1998, to ensure the environment would be safe from leaks. The agency has, for the past year, reminded tank owners of the impending deadline and has promised heavy enforcement efforts and high fines for non-compliance. But just days before the December deadline, the agency came out with an enforcement priority plan that targets gas stations and tank locations with four or more tanks. It will not focus on state or local government entities or small gas stations. In addition, tank owners who use EPA"s "disclosure and self-correction" procedures will not be penalized if they made no effort to come into compliance with EPA"s rules before the deadline. EPA said it is targeting larger facilities first because the greater the number of tanks, the larger the potential public health risk. "As it stands, the guy who ignored the rules, didn"t do anything to upgrade his tanks, and now "self-reports" his violation, will have little or no penalty," said a statement by SIGMA, which represents 256 petroleum resellers. "But his competitor, who spent upwards of $175,000 per station to meet the new environmental rules, can be assessed heavy penalties if EPA auditors come in and find ... some minor mistake made during the installation process." According to SIGMA, the enforcement plan is unfair because if the tank owner doesn"t know about the violation, he can"t report it and be eligible for the leniency afforded knowing violators. EPA estimates that of the 892,000 underground storage tanks in service, 500,000 meet federal standards.

OSHA Whistleblower Action

In keeping with its promise to strengthen whistle-blower protection, the U.S. Department of Labor announced 41 workers in New York and New Jersey reached settlements with their employers in fiscal year 1998. Each of the workers reported workplace hazards and were discharged or otherwise penalized as a result. Under the settlement, agreements reached between employers and OSHA netted the 41 workers a total of $211,231 in back wages. Some employees were reinstated or had vacations and 401K benefits restored. "The great majority of these cases were resolved quickly -- many in less than a month," said Patricia K. Clark, OSHA Region II administrator. "The intent of OSHA"s whistleblower regulations is that workers must not be penalized for doing the right thing and speaking out about workplace safety hazards." Workers who have been discriminated against for reporting unsafe conditions must contact an OSHA office within 30 days of the time they learn of an alleged discriminatory action taken against them. Truckers, mechanics, and other interstate trucking employees have 180 days under provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act.

Owens Corning Settles Asbestos Lawsuits

Owens Corning will pay $1.2 billion in the next two years to settle asbestos-related lawsuits. The company, embroiled in one of the largest and longest-running product liability cases in U.S. history, stopped selling asbestos products in 1972. "The National Settlement Program (NSP) focuses on doing the right thing: getting fair compensation in a timely manner to those most directly in need. For more than 25 years, our industry and tens of thousands of people have been stuck in the morass of asbestos litigation," said Glen Hiner, chairman and CEO of Owens Corning. The NSP will settle about 90 percent of the more than 176,000 cases pending against Owens Corning. Compensation will be based on the claimant"s type and severity of asbestos-related disease and the extent of exposure to Owens Corning products containing asbestos. Future claimants must meet certain medical impairment criteria, and the company expects to spend less than $200 million annually for asbestos liability beginning in 2002. Owens Corning established the program in response to the rising cost of mesothelioma (a type of cancer associated with asbestos exposure) settlements and judgments, as well as a change in the legal climate. A 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Georgine v. Amchem Products struck down an asbestos class action settlement. Substantial new information about pending and future claims, gained during the negotiations about the NSP, also played a role in the decision to settle with claimants. The agreements allow prompt payments for claimants, who will be entitled to additional compensation if they develop a more severe asbestos-related medical condition in the future. Owens Corning said that without the settlement, claimants could have waited years for payment because of the backlog of cases and the time-intensive nature of the litigation. "This settlement program resolves 15 years of pending cases and establishes a fair process to resolve future claims," said Maura J. Abeln, senior vice president and general counsel for Owens Corning. Plaintiff attorney Perry Weitz, of Weitz and Luxenberg, said the settlement program "will fulfill our mutual commitment to provide compensation on an expedited basis to people who have been injured through exposure to Owens Corning"s former asbestos products."

Nader Blasts OSHA

The nation"s newly formed Labor Party should focus on improving the safety and health of workers, because OSHA is weak and ineffective, claims consumer activist Ralph Nader. Nader said he thought it was "a great step forward" in 1970 when OSHA was formed and workers" rights were prioritized by the agency. Now, said Nader, the agency is "a mere shadow of itself" adding, "It has never been worse." Nader made his comments at the Labor Party"s inaugural convention, which drew delegates from 48 states.

NIOSH Joins CAESAR Project

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) signed on as a funding partner for the Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource (CAESAR) Project. CAESAR"s mission is to acquire three-dimensional data on the size and shape of the human body. The information will be used to design safer, more comfortable automotive interiors, seating and instrumentation, and more accurately sized garments. The bodies of 4,000 male and female volunteers between the ages of 18 and 65 will be mapped by a whole-body laser scanner. Scanning commences in Los Angeles in mid-April, followed by sites in Detroit, Ames, Iowa, and Dayton, Ohio. An additional 4,000 subjects will be scanned in the Netherlands and Italy by The Netherlands Organization (TNO). Established in 1997, CAESAR is a cooperative research project administered by the Society of Automotive Engineers and the U.S. Air Force. NIOSH"s role will be to conduct research and make recommendations for preventing work-related illnesses and injuries. It joins 21 other research partners in industries ranging from aerospace and vehicle manufacturing to apparel. For more information, contact Gary Lecuru at 248-273-2463 or via e-mail at [email protected] or visit SAE"s Web site at.

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