OSHA Comes Up Short on Workplace, Safety-Program Evaluations, Report Shows

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not perform many safety inspections at federal workplaces and has not conducted any agency-wide evaluations of federal safety programs in the last six years, according to a recently released congressional report.

In addition, OSHA has not turned in a report on federal agency safety programs to the president since fiscal 2000, even though OSHA is required by a White House directive and regulations to review the programs each year, the report by the Government Accountability Office said.

"OSHA's oversight of federal agencies' safety programs is not as effective as it could be because the agency does not use its enforcement and compliance assistance resources in a strategic manner," the GAO report said.

Officials at OSHA acknowledged they have problems with their enforcement and compliance strategies "but noted that they have relatively few staff dedicated to federal agency oversight," the report said. The Labor Department, OSHA's parent agency, generally agreed with the findings, GAO said.

The GAO report was requested by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Labor Department. "This GAO report assists in determining what further steps can be taken to ensure that workers have safe conditions and that violations are closely monitored," Scott Hoeflich , a spokesman for Specter, said.

During the past decade, more than 800 federal employees died from work-related accidents, with 47 deaths occurring in 2004, the most recent year that GAO could collect data from federal agency reports.

Although the size of the federal workforce has decreased by 6 percent in the past decade, GAO found that workers' compensation costs remained fairly constant, about $1.52 billion in 2004, compared with about $1.54 billion in fiscal 1995, after adjusting for inflation.

Claims involving traumatic injuries decreased slightly, to 74,322 in 2004 from 76,633 in 1995, GAO said. The injuries included sprains and strains of ligaments, muscles and tendons, sprains and strains of the back, bruises and cuts, GAO said.

A smaller number of employees filed claims involving non-traumatic injuries, such as hearing loss and carpal tunnel syndrome, GAO found. Those claims decreased to 5,903 in 2004 from 8,508 in 1995, GAO said.

Federal agencies are among the nation's largest employers. While many employees work in low-risk offices, large numbers are employed in hospitals, prisons, forests, parks and manufacturing.

For the report, GAO collected data from 57 agencies, representing about 80 percent of the federal workforce. The GAO survey found that eight agencies did not have procedures to ensure that an injured employee was seen promptly by a doctor, while 12 agencies did not have programs offering injured employees light-duty alternatives to help them return to work more quickly.

The report said 23 agencies did not have computer systems for collecting information about workplace hazards and whether they were corrected in a timely manner.

A new rule, which took effect last year, requires agencies to keep logs of workplace injuries and could be useful in helping OSHA target inspections in the future, GAO said.

OSHA officials told GAO that they also hope to rely on data being collected under a 2004 White House initiative. The "Safety and Health and Return to Employment" initiative seeks to reduce federal workers compensation claims and to get more injured federal employees back to work.

But GAO said some agency officials see the initiative as "a paper exercise," and GAO concluded "the impact of the initiative on agencies' safety programs is not clear."

At noon today, Robert M. Tobias, director of public sector executive education at American University, will be the guest on Federal Diary Live on washingtonpost.com and will take questions from federal employees. Stephen Barr may be reached atbarrs@washpost.com.

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