Labor Department Enforcement Lacking, Report Finds

April 6, 2009

The Labor Department failed to properly enforce safety and health laws against employers with a history of safety violations, an internal investigation found.

A report issued last week by the department’s inspector general, Elliot Lewis, said the agency’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration didn’t follow its own procedures in 97 percent of cases sampled in a performance audit.

The findings offered more fuel to Democrats who blame the Bush administration for lax enforcement of labor law violations.

“This report shows that for the last five years since this program was instituted, OSHA failed to provide an effective deterrent to employers who put their workers’ lives at risk,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif. She chairs the Workforce Protections subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee.

The audit analyzed 325 inspections conducted under a special OSHA program established in 2003 to target the work sites of high-risk employers for increased enforcement. In nearly every case, it found OSHA did not properly follow procedures, including how the case was classified and whether follow-up inspections occurred.

Of 29 employers identified for enforcement in the program, OSHA did not begin enforcement actions even though 16 of those employers later experienced 20 worker fatalities.

In all, the report said that if OSHA had followed procedures, it may have deterred or reduced workplace risks at the sites of 45 employers where 58 fatalities later occurred.

A response by OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary, Donald Shalhoub, took issue with the report’s conclusion that the program lacked enough emphasis on management. Shalhoub said the program is relatively new and that the agency is addressing its shortcomings. He also called the report misleading because it may lead to an inference that the lack of workplace inspection resulted in a fatality.

A labor department spokesperson declined on-the-record comment. New Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has pledged to increase enforcement of safety and health laws.

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney called the report “an indictment of the Bush administration’s unwillingness to protect and safeguard America’s working men and women.”

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