Sunday, February 01, 2004

Department of Energy Decides When It Comes To Safety, Contractors Know Best

Bush Administration Wants To Let Contractors Decide Their Own Safety Standards

A remaining legacy of the Cold War are defense nuclear facilities that make materials for nuclear bombs, but are run by contractors for the Department of Energy. Oversight of workplace health and safety conditions at these plants comes under the jurisdiction of DOE, rather than OSHA. Traditionally, while DOE contractors were required to comply with all OSHA regulations, DOE did not have the authority to fine contactors for violations....until the 2003 Defense Authorization Act was passed, requiring DOE to fine contractors who violated OSHA regulations.

Last month, the DOE issued draft regulations implementing this new law. Instead of following the intent of Congress which was to strengthen health and safety protections for workers at these facilities, DOE has twisted its reading of the law to issue a regulatory proposal that significantly weakens worker protections.

First, requirements that contractors comply with OSHA standards would now become unenforceable guidelines. Second, instead of being able to fine contractors for violating any OSHA standard, DOE would only be able to fine contractors that violate health and safety standards that the contractors themselves have decided they want to comply with. Their health and safety programs would have to be approved by DOE.

What's the problem with that?
The government often gives contractors financial incentives to complete projects ahead of schedule, and tough safety standards could slow contractors down, said Leon Owens, a worker and past president of the local union at the government's uranium plant in Paducah, Ky.

"I don't feel that a contractor would be as inclined to develop rules that would go the extra length to provide adequate protection for workers," Owens said.
In other words, according to Richard Miller of the Government Accountability Project, "It's like you're driving to a meeting, but you're late, so you get to change the speed limit to 80 mph to get there on time."

The new rules would prohibit DOE from citing or even inspecting for hazards that the contractor decides are not covered in the plan. Miller's testimony pointed out that if the a workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation were exposed to toxic fumes venting from tanks that had not been included in the contractor's original plan, DOE would not be able to inspect or cite the contractor even if the exposures exceeded OSHA limits. "Please explain why this exemption makes for good safety policy, or will keep workers from getting sick from workrelated exposures," Miller asks.

According to Assistant Secretary of Energy, Beverly Cook, the proposed regs are part of a continuing effort to get contractors to focus on hazards specific to their sites rather than on dangers that don't exist everywhere.

"But why," Miller asks, "Should DOE contractors not have to comply with the same health and safety floor that every other employer in the U.S. has to comply with?"

The DOE proposal has not only been criticized by Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland (OH), but also by conservative Republican Jim Bunning (KY).

And Jack Conway, chairman of Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an advisory panel that oversees safety at the Energy Department, said the proposal would weaken safety standards covering more than 100,000 workers at the facilities. "The way it's written, I don't like it at all," said Conway.

Private contractors are writing their own safety regulations, corporate lobbyists are writing environmental regulations, small business association representatives are bankrolled by taxpayer dollars.

I'm not sure what form of government this is, but somehow it doesn't seem like the kind of democracy that most people still think we live under.