Federal budget politics are behind the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's proposed $1.38 million fine against Omega Plastics Corp., charges Alfred Teo, chairman of its parent, Sigma Plastics Group. In a May 22 press release, OSHA cited a series of accidents at Omega Plastics in Lyndhurst, N.J., ``that resulted in numerous employee injuries, including mutilations and amputations.''
Teo called the allegations ``grossly exaggerated'' and ``highly political.'' He said the most serious accident caused an employee to lose the tip of a finger and a fingernail. He missed less than one week of work, then returned to the job, Teo said.
``At no time whatsoever did anything happen in our plant with mutiliation or amputation,'' Teo said.
According to OSHA, employees' hands, fingers or arms were caught in moving parts while they were working on printing presses. The OSHA investigation began Nov. 22, when Lyndhurst police contacted OSHA's Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., office about an Omega employee whose arm was seriously injured in a printing press.
OSHA charged the presses did not have proper safety guards. The equipment had been moved from Webster Industries in Peabody, Mass., after Omega Plastics bought Webster's packaging business in 1991.
Efraim Zoldan, area director of the OSHA Hasbrouck Heights office, said Omega Plastics had removed the safety guards for the move, and had them on-site.
``They just did not bother to put them on,'' he said, even after accidents started to happen.
Teo denied that. Some safety equipment was removed from the machines because they were shut down, undergoing mainte-nance, he said. Omega had other guards on order. OSHA officials inspected the plant in December and seemed pleased the company was cooperating, he said.
``They said `OK everything is fine. We know you're cooperating with us, no problem.' All of a sudden they put out this news release and gave us the citations,'' Teo said.
OSHA cited Omega Plastics for 24 willful violations, 22 serious violations and 12 other violations of OSHA standards, Zoldan said.
Teo said he plans to appeal the citation. Both sides were scheduled to hold an informal conference this week.
Teo insisted that Omega Plastics, and the other companies under the umbrella of Sigma, a $200 million-plus film extrusion and bag conglomerate, operate safely.
``To me, safety always comes first,'' he said by phone on May 24, the day after OSHA announced the big fine.
The government's press release announcing the fines said the Omega case illustrated the need for a strong OSHA, which is part of the Department of Labor.
Joseph Dear, the department's assistant secretary who oversees OSHA, charged that the Republican-controlled Congress was planning to cut OSHA's budget by 50 percent, which he said would devastate the agency.
Dear was quoted in the re-lease: ``I don't think Americans were voting for more workplace tragedies such as this case when they went to the polls last November. But this is where these budget cuts would lead us.''
Labor secretary Robert Reich was quoted saying: ``This is the kind of case that dramatically illustrates why we need OSHA. This employer exhibited a callous disregard for the welfare of employees that resulted in 10 serious injuries in a 13-month period. All those injuries could have been prevented by observing the protections of OSHA standards.''
But Teo said there were four injuries, not 10.
``This is grossly overblown into a political issue,'' Teo said.``This is the kind of thing that drives people out of the manu
facturing business in this country. I've been in business for 25 years and I've never seen anything like this disgrace.''
Teo founded Sigma Plastics, then known as Sigma Extruding Corp., in 1979 in Lyndhurst. An aggressive acquisition strategy has created a company with 1,500 employees and 10 plants, according to Plastics News data.
Despite Dear's charge about budget cuts, OSHA spokesman Robert Brown said he did not have any solid evidence showing a plan for a 50 percent cut.
``It's been talked about, but there's nothing official in any budget document we've seen.''
Plastics News' East Coast reporter Roger King contributed to this story.