An investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirms what union and other workplace safety advocates have charged for years—the Bush administration’s reliance on voluntary policing by employers of their safety and health actions did not improve worker safety.
The GAO report, released this week, concludes that under the Bush administration the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Voluntary Protection Program lacked proper oversight, did not improve worker safety and diverted scarce resources from other enforcement duties.
The program has been in place since 1982, but the Bush administration greatly expanded it and widely promoted it as an alternative to strong enforcement of workplace safety and health laws. During its last five years, the Bush administration more than doubled the number of workplaces under the voluntary program.
Companies in the program are able to avoid routine inspections as long as they demonstrate they have an exemplary safety and health program, have no ongoing enforcement actions and have an injury and illness rate below the average rates for the industry.
The program’s stated goal is to promote cooperation between workers and management on developing innovative workplace health and safety programs. However, says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee:
GAO’s report makes clear that OSHA has strayed too far from its core mission of protecting the safety and health of workers on the job. The agency has spent too much time seeking voluntary compliance from employers and too little time enforcing the law. I look forward to working with the Obama administration to see that OSHA effectively carries out its important responsibilities to the nation’s workforce.
Yesterday, OSHA announced that it is beginning a comprehensive review and evaluation of the program. Jordan Barab, acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said he agrees with recommendations made in the GAO report. GAO’s analysis recommended that OSHA strengthen the program’s oversight activity, documentation and other aspects of program operations and impact to ensure consistency and adherence to existing OSHA policies and procedures.
The GAO found that OSHA did not properly ensure that only worksites that had exemplary safety programs were eligible for relief from routine inspections. According to the GAO report, 12 percent of the worksites participating in the program had an injury or illness rate higher than rates for their industry, and one participating worksite had an injury and illness rate four times higher than their industry average.
In addition, OSHA continued to allow some businesses to participate in the voluntary program even though they were cited for serious safety violations. One such worksite had three separate fatalities over a five-year period. Another was cited for 10 violations related to a fatality, including seven serious violations, and one related to discrepancies in the site’s injury and illness logs, but was able to continue to avoid regular inspections as a result of its participation in the voluntary program.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, says he is not surprised at the GAO findings.
They only confirm what many had already known—the Bush administration’s misdirected reliance on voluntary programs siphoned scarce resources that were needed for enforcement of our nation’s health and safety laws. Fortunately, the Congress and Obama administration are committed to help set OSHA on a new course to provide the additional resources and staff in order to ensure that all workers are able to return home safely after their shifts.