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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has failed to enforce laws protecting the nation's workers, a failure contributing to thousands of workplace deaths, a critic of the agency says.

A report released Friday by the Chicago-based National Safe Workplace Institute concluded that OSHA's ineffectiveness and unwillingness to be tough with violators has resulted in more than 9,000 avoidable workplace fatalities since 1981.However, statisticians and the federal agency disputed the figure and said on-the-job deaths have declined sharply during the 1980s.

"This report represents a selective use of statistics," OSHA's chief spokesman, Terry Mikelson, said. "It creates the impression that more and more people are being killed at work, that more and more people are being hurt, when just the opposite is true."

The institute, which is supported by foundation grants and private contributions, said the United States has become "a first-rate nation with a second-rate record of protecting (its) workers."

"We have to agree with some of what they say," said Margaret Seminario, associate director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO. "We really do have some serious problems with OSHA."

The report, a copy of which was obtained Thursday, accused the agency of inconsistency and criticized "sweetheart deals" that reduced fines against large corporate violators.

For example, it said OSHA proposed fines of $1.48 million against Union Carbide Corp. in 1986 but accepted a settlement of $408,500.

But Mikelson, the OSHA spokesman, said, "Historically, the agency has reduced penalties in the interest of obtaining immediate abatement of hazards. That is our mission: to correct hazards, to get them out of the workplace, and we've done that."