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Although the Air Force has docked Morton Thiokol for safety concerns following a fatal MX missile motor fire last December, a state occupational official says the company has made remarkable progress.

The Air Force confirmed Tuesday that it has begun withholding 15 percent of the monthly contract payment for Morton Thiokol's work on the MX missile, citing a failure to ensure employee compliance with safety procedures and "a general deterioration of the housekeeping practices relating to safety."Five men were killed on Dec. 29, 1987, in an explosion and fire in a casting operation where solid rocket fuel is poured and set inside missile segments.

The Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division originally fined the company $31,700 for safety violations, it later settled for a $4,700 fine and Morton Thiokol's $10,000 contribution to safety education in a school.

"I think they're just moving very well on meeting employee safety concerns," said Douglas McVey, a safety and health division administrator, Wednesday. "All in all, we're just very supportive of their efforts and think they are on the right track."

He said the agency's principal concern was worker proximity to the volatile rocket fuel, but that Morton Thiokol had refined its safety procedures and manual and begun relying on more remote controls for casting operations.

McVey said organizational barriers that once prevented safety improvements from being distributed throughout the complex were crumbling, while a once-hierarchal system of approval for change was becoming less rigid.

"What we're seeing is they're applying the lessons learned in one area to another area," he said. "They've got a system now that when somebody sees something wrong, they jump right in and fix it."

McVey said the safety and health division has continued to inspect Thiokol, but results still are being compiled. He could not say if any more violations had been found.

He said that in the 1,500 to 2,000 inspections the division makes each year, 50 to 60 percent of businesses are found to be in violation.

"I don't know that anybody ever gets all the way there" to perfect compliance, he said.