Labor Department jolts Postal Service over electrical work-safety violations

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; B03

These are bad times for the U.S. Postal Service. .

It's struggling mightily to stay afloat financially.

Now, according to the Labor Department, it's also a place that can be electrifying -- literally.

The Labor Department said the USPS may have serious electrical work-safety violations at all of its 350 processing and distribution centers.

"The safety violations increase the risk of injury from electrical shock, including electrocution," the department's statement said.

Labor's solicitor filed a complaint Tuesday with the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, asking it to compel USPS compliance with electrical safety standards at all of its facilities. The complaint followed the discovery of numerous, similar violations in postal buildings by the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A department statement said this is the first time Labor has sought "enterprise-wide relief as a remedy."

"When the same safety violation is discovered in multiple locations of an organization, we need an enterprise-wide remedy to protect workers from the hazard," said Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith.

The complaint says that the USPS has known "for many years" of its failure to comply with OSHA's electrical safety-related work practices standards. "Over the last ten years, at least eight USPS employees have sustained injuries in electrical arc flash/blast accidents," the complaint says. One violation caused a fatality.

OSHA has imposed $2.9 million in penalties for violations at 21 postal facilities. The USPS has contested most of the citations, a Labor spokeswoman said.

Labor said despite the Postal Services' knowledge of ongoing electrical safety problems, "USPS failed to adequately train workers in recognizing electrical hazards and how to work safely around such hazards, and did not provide workers with the appropriate tools and personal protective equipment to avoid injury or death while working around and on electrical equipment."

At one point, according to the complaint, the USPS national office "instructed District and Senior Plant Managers not to 'expend funds on any NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] . . . training or consulting activities.' "

The Postal Service responded with a largely irrelevant press statement that dealt more with its road safety record than the electrical violations: "The Postal Service places the safety and well being of its employees as a top priority. Bureau of Labor statistics validate that the Postal Service works twice as safe as other delivery organizations. The National Safety Council recognized more than 5,800 of our employees for driving a million miles without an accident. No other business comes close. The Council's 2009 Safe Driver of the Year award was presented to one of our dedicated employees who has driven two million accident free miles. Regardless, one accident, or the potential for one accident -- on the road, in a post office or a mail processing plant -- is one too many. We will review OSHA's concerns and make necessary adjustments to continue to ensure a safe working environment for our employees."

In unusually strong language for one governmental agency to use about another, David Michaels, assistant labor secretary for OSHA, said, "Even though it was aware of the hazards, USPS failed to institute the necessary measures to protect its workers. The complaint filed today seeks to put a stop to this irresponsible behavior."

The American Postal Workers Union said it had made many attempts to persuade postal management to correct the violations. "The USPS stubbornly refused to address the problems," said Greg Bell, APWU industrial relations director. "As a result, we advised locals to file formal complaints with OSHA."

'Free money'

The dead, the incarcerated and the federally employed are among those who improperly received payments from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The program is designed to help 8.3 million low-income households with heating and cooling costs. Eligible households must meet income requirements. Three Republican members of Congress, Joe L. Barton of Texas, Michael C. Burgess of Texas and Greg Walden of Oregon, asked the GAO to look for fraud in the program, including possible abuse by federal workers.

The identities of more than 11,000 dead people were used in applying for benefits worth $3.9 million in the seven states covered in the GAO's review. The names of 725 convicts in state prisons were used for about $370,000 in benefits. Federal workers whose incomes exceeded guidelines applied for $671,000 in benefits. Presumably the deceased didn't need the money, the imprisoned couldn't use it and the federally employed hoped to get away with it.

In one case, a Postal Service worker making $80,000 got $840 in benefits after signing a statement that said "the employee had zero income." The employee told investigators she wanted the "free money."

This case and others have been referred to the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general.

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