GAO Rips OSHA Emergency Response Planning

A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that OSHA was ill-prepared to respond to Hurricane Katrina, and, consequently, did not fully meet the safety and health needs of emergency response and recovery workers.

According to the report – “Disaster Preparedness: Better Planning Would Improve OSHA’s Efforts to Protect Workers’ Safety and Health in Disasters” – OSHA's efforts in assisting all recovery workers were hampered due to the inability of OSHA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to agree on which agency was in charge of providing safety and health assistance to federal workers.

GAO noted that no one, including OSHA, was responsible for collecting information on how many response and recovery workers were involved in the Hurricane Katrina response. Ten federal agencies provided estimates showing that 49,000 federal workers were toiling in the Gulf Coast region, and six of those agencies estimated that their contractors had 5,100 workers in the area. However, OSHA’s efforts to collect information on injuries and illnesses were delayed, according to the report.

In addition, the report revealed that OSHA did not coordinate with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure that workers had needed mental health services, and OSHA was not assigned responsibility for coordinating the needs of non-federal workers, including state and local agency workers, immigrants and volunteers.

Report: Federal Agencies Need to Work Together

The report recommends that the Department of Labor, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, direct the heads of OSHA and FEMA to work together more efficiently in clearly defining the responsibilities of each agency in the event of a future disaster.

In addition, GAO recommends that the two agencies proactively work to provide “information to federal, state and local agencies about OSHA’s role in a disaster and the assistance it can provide under the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex, including seeking opportunities for OSHA to participate in emergency preparedness exercises at federal, state and local levels.”

The report urges the Labor Department to direct OSHA to:

  • Establish a process for collecting data on injuries and illnesses sustained by workers who respond to disasters, as defined in the Worker Safety and Health Support Annex to the National Response Plan.
  • Use the information collected on injuries and illnesses to identify safety and health hazards and analyze injury and illness trends.
  • Develop, implement and monitor an incident personal protective equipment program, as defined in the annex.

The GAO report also points out that the Department of Labor and HHS should work together to develop a plan for coordinating and providing mental health services to response and recovery workers.

According to GAO, the Labor Department agreed to establish a system to better track injuries and
illnesses but disagreed with some of the findings on which the other recommendations were based. The other two agencies agreed with the recommendations in the report.

The full report can be downloaded at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d07193.pdf.

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