OSHA HITS LANDIS WITH $720,000 IN FINES

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Landis Plastics Inc. plans to ``vigorously contest'' $720,700 in fines proposed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA proposed the fines after it finished a six-month inspection of Landis' Solvay, N.Y., container injection molding and printing plant. OSHA said it found Landis had ``grossly'' underrecorded worker injuries and illnesses and committed violations in machine guarding and ergonomic work practices in 1995 and 1996. Injuries included finger amputations and hand injuries in the printing operation.

Landis said in a Jan. 14 news release, ``These violations are the workplace equivalent of old parking tickets, and the proposed penalties are clearly excessive.''

Landis spokeswoman Linda Russell said by telephone that the Solvay plant is a safe workplace and that 91 percent of the OSHA citations deal with record-keeping violations. Landis claimed it has invested more than $1.5 million in fixing Solvay's problems, has hired a full-time safety director, made personnel changes, and taken other measures that improved the plant's safety record.

Landis will try to reach a settlement with OSHA on many of the cited violations in the 15 working days it has to contest the citations and penalties. The company will continue to cooperate with OSHA, which Russell said ``misunderstood'' Landis' practices. Landis, based in Chicago Grove, Ill., had injection molding sales of about $120 million in 1995.

OSHA Syracuse-area director Diane Brayden said OSHA's proposed fine is unusually high because Landis was flagrant and deliberate in its violations. She said the Landis facility had seven times the injury rate of the plastics industry average over the two-year period. OSHA inspected Landis records and the Solvay plant from July 15 to January 14.

Violations included failure to record 63 injuries and illnesses, each violation carrying a proposed penalty of $10,000 for a total of $630,000. Normally OSHA combines such violations but they were willful and therefore serious, so OSHA cited each one for penalty, said Brayden.

Repeat violations for unsafe machinery, insufficient training and not making hazard assessments for personal protective equipment led to another $57,500 in proposed fines. Failure to prevent ergonomic risk factors that cause back and other injuries added another $15,000 to the fine. Several other violations bring the total proposed penalty to $720,700.

Patricia Clark, OSHA regional administrator, said in a Jan. 14 news release, ``By misrecording injuries and illnesses over the last two years, this company allowed hazards to remain unaddressed, resulting in continuous harm to employees.''

United Steelworkers Union organizer James Valenti said he was ``taken aback'' by Landis' comparison of the citations to old parking tickets. ``I certainly think the proposed penalties are fair,'' he said.

USW wants to unionize the Solvay plant, which employs about 200. Valenti said the OSHA citations probably will influence several employees who were undecided on unionization. Residual effects of OSHA's citations ``enhanced [the USW's] credibility.''

In a separate action last November, the New York Workers' Compensation Board fined Landis $48,000 for failure to file Solvay's worker injury reports on time. Russell said Landis appealed that decision but the board has not indicated when it will rule on the appeal. She claimed the fine resulted ``from selective enforcement based on the Steelworkers' aggressive campaign.'' It was the first time the board fined a firm for late filing.

Valenti could give no schedule for a USW vote on unionization at Solvay. Continuing unfair labor practices are a stumbling block, he said. Although Solvay management and workers reached a labor practices agreement late last year, the USW is trying to have the agreement rescinded. Valenti said Landis reverted to ``unfair practices'' just days after the two sides reached the agreement.

Russell said Valenti was referring to an incident in which an employee was disciplined for insubordination. She charged that the USW is using this as an excuse to avoid a unionization vote that the union would not win.

OSHA's Brayden said half of Solvay's injuries resulted from poor ergonomics. Job functions with improper lifting and handling movements led to numerous cumulative trauma disorders such as back ailments.

She called the ergonomic violations ``serious.''

Landis, on the other hand, ``pronounced itself vindicated'' in a news release issued in response to the OSHA report. Desite the unusually hefty fine, Landis said that ``nowhere in this inch-thick document is there any finding by OSHA that Landis is an unsafe place to work.''

Valenti said Landis should be worried about possible criminal investigations. Russell argued Landis has ``absolutely no knowledge'' of such an investigation. Federal and state attorneys general offices could not confirm if they would launch investigations. Brayden said OSHA has not recommended a criminal investigation but has not made a final decision.