Can Improved Job Safety Save the Government Money?

In a recent memo, President George W. Bush directed all executive branch departments and agencies to participate in a new program called Safety, Health and Return-to-Employment (SHARE). In FY 2003 the federal government paid out more than $2 billion in workers' compensation costs, and Bush wants those costs reduced.

The new initiative proclaims ambitious goals that may be difficult to meet. Tom Marple is OSHA's director of the office of federal agency programs and is responsible for implementing SHARE among executive branch workers.

In a recent interview, Marple said one difference between previous efforts to improve safety for federal workers and SHARE is that the new initiative, which covers three fiscal years (2004-2006) gives federal agencies specific goals:

  • Reduce total cases by at least 3 percent per year;
  • Reduce lost time case rates by at least 3 percent per year;
  • Increase timely filing of workers compensation claims by 5 percent per year;
  • Reduce lost production days by at least 1 percent per year.

The government estimates savings of $250 million per year if the goals are met. But will the government hit these targets?

In 2002, the Department of Labor held a summit on federal workers' safety, announcing a new commitment to reduce the human and financial costs of those hurt at work. But for the first time in a decade the total case rate (4.19) and the lost-time case rate (1.93) actually increased in FY 2003.

Marple explained that the increase last year was because of the unique circumstances surrounding the start-up of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). "It's difficult to go from zero to 65,000 employees in one year," he said. "Hiring that many people in a short time period raises many safety and health challenges."

Marple, who said he was not intimately involved in the 2002 summit, pointed to the primary new feature of SHARE that may make it successful: department and agency heads will be held accountable for achieving the case reduction goals.

"We believe setting goals and holding agencies accountable will stimulate increased requests for assistance from OSHA," said Marple. "It may also stimulate increased participation in training and more funding for agencies' safety and health programs."

At least one summit goal, requiring the federal government to report injuries and illnesses the same way the private sector does, is nearing completion. "We have a draft regulation on this that is currently under review by the Office of Management and Budget," said Marple. Currently, federal injury and illness reporting is tied to the filing of workers' compensation claims.

But will the focus on meeting goals for reducing injury and illnesses lead to "short cuts and compromises to achieve paper instead of real gains?" That's the concern of James Kendrick, president of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). In a written statement, Kendrick commended the SHARE initiative, but warned the administration not to rely on "trailing indicators," such as lower case rates. He called on the administration to use "leading indicators," and suggested using the comprehensive safety and health program that OSHA withdrew from its regulatory agenda in 2002.

Marple replied that 29 CFR part 1960 already requires the federal agencies to have a safety and health management program.

"The regulation has been in place for a number of years," Marple explained, "but some agencies don't follow it as well as others."

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