Federal Worker Safety: OSHA Vows to Lead by Example

"The old adage that the automobile mechanic usually has one of the worst running cars is not going to apply here at OSHA," declared OSHA Administrator John Henshaw at the Department of Labor's first Federal Workers' Safety and Health Summit.

After years of neglect, what has provoked high-level government officials to pay attention to the safety of the federal work force? "In addition to the incalculable human costs [of injuries and illnesses], the bottom line costs are extraordinary," explained Deputy Secretary of Labor Cameron Findlay, who also spoke at the summit, held yesterday at the Department of Labor's Washington headquarters.

The federal government or U.S. taxpayers now spend more than $2 billion each year on workers' compensation costs. In fiscal year 2001, almost 166,000 new federal workers' compensation claims were filed, an injury rate of 5.60 injuries or illnesses per 100 employees. These new injuries resulted in approximately 2 million lost production days, or 74 lost days for every 100 federal workers.

Findlay pointed to another reason workplace safety has attracted the attention of top government officials: injuries suffered by federal workers at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and illnesses to postal workers arising from the anthrax exposures.

One key reason for poor safety performance in the federal work force, according to Findlay, is that, unlike in private industry, safety and health and workers' compensation issues in the federal sector generally have not been tackled together. "We hope to change that," he said.

A second factor that distinguishes the private sector from the government is that federal agencies pay no economic price for injured workers. Taxpayers pick up the tab.

The speakers at the summit stated they want to reduce workplace injuries and illnesses, cut lost production days, speed up the processing of compensation claims and encourage injured workers to return to the job sooner.

Henshaw vowed that his primary goal is to reduce injuries and illnesses. "Since this can only be achieved through active, visible leadership, I will personally play a visible role in ensuring that this goal is achieved," he said.

Henshaw spelled out a number of new initiatives to help OSHA and the federal government lead by example in showing the value of safety and health:

  • All regional and area OSHA offices will advise Henshaw's office of each occurrence of an injury or illness, with an evaluation of the cause, a correction plan and a process for hazard elimination.
  • With respect to the federal work force beyond OSHA, implementation of a program establishing that safety, health and environmental core management values must be a part of all federal senior executive service training.
  • Change federal injury and illness recordkeeping requirements so they conform to the requirements for the private sector.

Currently, federal recordkeeping is designed only to track incidents tied to medical costs and workers' compensation, rather than the prevention of injuries and illnesses.

The new initiative appears to have the support of cabinet members, if not President Bush. "I know I share the same beliefs and ideas as [Labor Secretary] Chao, [Treasury Secretary] O'Neill and every cabinet member when we say there is much work to be done to reduce injury and illness occurrences," Henshaw said.

The focus on improving safety performance at OSHA and the federal government are goals that also appeared to energize Henshaw, who has focused much of his attention on internal management changes at OSHA. "How can we lead," he asked, "if we're not doing it ourselves?"

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