Labor IG Audit Finds Many Failures in Worker-Safety Initiative

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009

A special government program to improve worker safety in hazardous industries rarely fulfilled its promise, a Labor Department audit concluded yesterday, and over the past six years, dozens of deaths occurred at firms that should have been subjected to much tighter federal safety enforcement.

The report was the first detailed appraisal of a highly touted Bush administration initiative that called for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to devote attention and resources to improving safety at companies with a troubled history of job-related fatalities. The study found that officials failed to gather needed data, conducted uneven inspections and enforcement, and sometimes failed to discern repeat fatalities because records misspelled the companies' names or failed to notice when two subsidiaries with the same owner were involved.

Last year, the administration also changed the program's rules, sharply reducing the number of companies eligible for special attention. Proper enforcement might have "deterred and abated workplace hazards at the worksites of 45 employers where 58 subsequent fatalities occurred," Assistant Inspector General Elliot P. Lewis wrote in the report.

As an example, the report said that two similar worker deaths had occurred at different facilities operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority and that the second one might have been prevented if the first one had prompted appropriate enforcement and special inspections. In all, the audit said, a little more than half of the 282 fatalities that should have been included in the Enhanced Enforcement Program were not properly logged, partly because of poor training at OSHA.

Other repeat fatalities at construction, pipe, drilling, tree-trimming, lighting, energy and boating firms did not trigger the inspections envisioned under the program, the study said. Even when settlements were reached to improve safety practices at a company involved in repeat fatalities, they often were not properly enforced.

The study shows that government officials were "suggesting to the public that you've got an enhanced enforcement program going for five years, and it's not enhanced at all," said Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA policy analyst who is an assistant research professor at George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services. "It's not getting to the bad actors, and you're giving the public a false sense of effectiveness."

Obama has not yet appointed a new director for OSHA, which is a part of the Labor Department. A spokeswoman for the agency did not return a phone call seeking comment on the report yesterday.

According to an internal OSHA memorandum obtained by The Washington Post, dated March 19 and written by Richard E. Fairfax, director of enforcement programs, the rules changes made in January 2008 caused the number of companies targeted by the Enhanced Enforcement Program to drop from a peak of 719 in fiscal 2007 to 475 in fiscal 2008.

The extra attention is now given mostly to companies responsible for "low and medium gravity serious repeated violations," Fairfax wrote to OSHA's acting director, Donald G. Shalhoub. OSHA is still "not targeting the 'bad actors' the program is intended for," he said.

Shalhoub, in his official response to the inspector general's report, said OSHA acknowledges "the program may not have been consistently accomplishing its purpose and intent." He also said "we do not fully accept the implication of the conclusion" that OSHA failed to pay enough attention to the program, and he called any suggestion that additional employees died as a result "misleading and unfair."

Shalhoub said, however, that he accepted the report's recommendation that the program's effectiveness should be improved by more carefully evaluating which firms should be targeted and following up with rigorous inspections.

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