Monday, February 06, 2006

DOE Will Fine Contractors For Health & Safety Violations

The Bush administration has been forced to do something completely against its nature: issue regulations that would enable the Department of Energy to start fining contractors who violate basic safety rules at the nation's nuclear weapons plants. About 100,000 workers who maintain a nuclear arsenal, dismantle surplus weapons, dispose of excess radioactive materials, clean up old facilities and conduct energy research will be affected.
Currently the government can fine contractors if they expose workers to radiation hazards but cannot fine them for exposing employees to toxic chemicals or other industrial hazards.

A new rule to be published by the government next week seeks to resolve that inconsistency.

The rule, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, states that contractors can be fined up to $70,000 per day for each non-nuclear safety violation.

"We've never had this enforcement authority before, and that's why it is a significant step forward in enhancing safety and health issues across the DOE complex," said John Shaw, assistant secretary of environment, safety and health at the Energy Department.

Congress ordered the agency three years ago to create the new rule and start fining contractors for safety violations that don't involve nuclear material.
But, of course, this is the Bush administration. So nothing good comes easy:
The agency subsequently issued two draft rules that lawmakers and others said were too weak. One allowed contractors to pick and choose which safety rules they should be required to follow.

"This took two mistakes, and they finally got it right the third time," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who pushed for the change along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
The Government Accountability Project, which applauded the new rule, also noted that
In some areas, the rule provides protections greater than OSHA. For example, DOE’s beryllium provisions are ten-fold more protective than OSHA’s 50-year old standard, and will be enforceable for the first time under this rule. Likewise, workers will have the right to stop or refuse unsafe work, and to accompany enforcement inspectors when they tour nuclear facilities. Contractors will have one year to bring their facilities into compliance, at which point DOE can bring enforcement actions.
“The DOE’s next challenge is to ensure there are sufficient resources in the President’s budget request for FY 07 to hire inspectors and enforce the safety rule,” according to Richard Miller, senior policy analyst at GAP. Miller's concern may be well founded as the Associated Press reports that the president's 2007 budget is not expected to contain new funding to pay for enforcement of the rule.

The text of the new rule can be found here.

Related Articles