Committee assails OSHA on worker safety neglect

NEWSWATCH . . . ON FEDERAL WORKERS

March 04, 1992|By Daniel Horgan | Daniel Horgan,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- Members of a congressional subcommittee have blasted Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials for allegedly neglecting the safety of 3 million federal workers.

The subcommittee said the neglect results in needless deaths and injuries each year.

Last year, OSHA spent less than 1 percent of its budget on safety programs. Only 13 OSHA inspectors monitor the safety of the massive federal work force, testimony at the hearing on a proposed federal worker safety bill revealed.

"OSHA's not doing its job," Rep. Gerry Sikorski, chairman of the House Civil Service subcommittee, said at the hearing. "The lights are on, but no one's home."

Subcommittee members were irritated that the agency has not acted to improve worker safety since a May hearing at which witnesses cited harrowing examples of injuries and death at federal sites.

Testimony recounted how an Air Force worker lost 37 percent of his lung capacity from poisons he was forced to inhale while sealing missile silos.

In another case, a U.S. Customs officer was killed after he was snagged in the window of a car driven by a drug smuggler speeding away from a checkpoint. Before the incident, workers had asked for tire shredders and guard bars there.

"Things haven't changed since last May," Mr. Sikorski, a Democrat from Minnesota, told Alan McMillan, an OSHA deputy assistant secretary who appeared before the panel last week.

The safety bill, now pending in the subcommittee, would provide federal workers with far broader protection from workplace hazards. The Federal Employees Occupational Safety and Health Act would give OSHA the authority to force the 120 widely scattered federal agencies to correct safety violations or face penalties. Currently, the agency does not have this authority.

The bill also would require the president to appoint a special prosecutor to force foot-dragging agencies to remedy violations.

Under the measure, any federal agency with work sites of more than 11 employees would be required to establish safety committees for those sites, and would provide protection for government-employed "whistle-blowers" who report safety violations at their work sites.

Mr. McMillan defended OSHA's record. The agency solves the safety violations it finds at federal work sites 97 percent of the time, he said.

Mr. McMillan said OSHA -- and the Bush administration -- oppose the worker safety bill, which is sponsored by Mr. Sikorski. The legislation, he maintained, would require OSHA to investigate every incident that caused an employee to miss work, resulting in 78,000 investigations a year.

Subcommittee members scoffed when Mr. McMillan said many federal agencies "do an outstanding job" of inspecting work sites.

Federal agencies are a big part of the problem, Mr. Sikorski said.

"Agencies are not paying attention to safety and health," he said, "and OSHA can't do a thing about it."

For example, OSHA has cited the Federal Aviation Administration for the past 12 years for failure to provide two exits in air traffic control towers, But, because OSHA cannot force the agency to comply with the citation, the situation remains uncorrected, subcommittee members said.

A recent congressional study showed that 512 federal workers across the country have been killed on the job since the government began tracking such data in 1988.

That number is probably understated because it doesn't reflect deaths resulting from occupational diseases with a long gestation period, such as asbestosis, the study said.

OSHA's current worker safety program is "woefully ineffective" for the size and scope of the federal work force, said subcommittee member Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democrat from the District of Columbia. Last year, OSHA conducted a total of 1,122 safety inspections, about half of those at U.S. Postal Service sites. That left the vast majority of federal work sites uninspected.

Representatives from the American Federation of Government Employees and three other federal workers' unions testified in support of the bill.

Mr. Sikorski said the bill has bipartisan support, and congressional aides noted that the ranking Republicans on the subcommittee as well as its parent House Post Office and Civil Service Committee support it.

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