Monday, September 11, 2006

DOE Swings Workplace Safety Pendulum Back

Like other federal government agencies, the Department of Energy is authorized to run its own workplace health and safety program for employees of the Department as well as employees of its contractors. Now DOE Secretary Samuel Bodwin has decided to make his agency the poster-boy for why self-regulation is a bad idea, even when the employer is a federal government agency.

Despite protests from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the Department of Energy is moving forward with abolishing its Office of Environment, Safety and Health, just months before new health and safety rules are to take effect for more than 100,000 workers at Department of Energy sites across the nation . The Office will be merged with the Department's security office, headed by a career professional rather than an Assistant Secretary.
"This is the pendulum swinging back," said David Michaels, who headed the office as an assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration.
According to a DOE statement,
Combining health, safety, security enforcement and independent oversight responsibilities into the Office of Health, Safety and Security creates one unified office that will result in improved coordination among important functions, including an integrated approach to managing risks involving safety and security considerations.

The DOE Office of Environment, Safety and Health is basically OSHA for the roughly 130,000 people who work for the department and its contractors. The contractors are doing highly hazardous work dismantling cleaning up the millions of gallons of radioactive and toxic liquid waste left over from the making of nuclear bombs at weapons plants across the country. The department was created in the 1980's as a result of reports of contamination and illnesses among the nation's "cold war veterans" who were exposed to nuclear materials and highly toxic chemicals and wastes.

In 2002, Congress passed a law giving the Office the authority to enforce health and safety standards against private contractors that have been hired by DOE to clean up the plants. The office also oversees health studies and medical screening programs for workers and surrounding communities exposed to ionizing radiation and other hazardous materials used in DOE operations. The office also conducts environmental impact statements related to agency activities.

Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project in Seattle, said
the timing of the reorganization, just months before the new safety rules take
effect, was suspicious. "Isn't that amazing?" he said. "It looks like they
are doing an end run."

The Governors of New Mexico and Washington, three former Assistant Secretaries, the United Steelworkers union, the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department, Congressmen Bart Stupak (D-MI), Ted Strickland (D-OH) and John Dingel (D-MI), and Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Harry Reid (D-NV), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jim Bunning (R-KY), and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) have written letters to Endergy Secretary Samuel Bodman opposing the changes. They fear that the health and safety functions of the office will be lost in a new office primarily concerned with security.

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