Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Opposition Grows To DOE's Plan To Eliminate Worker Safety Office

Opposition is mounting to Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman's plan to dismantle DOE's Office of Environment, Safety and Health (ES&H), eliminating the Assistant Secretary and submerging its functions into the DOE Office that oversees security. At the same time, Bodman's excuses for the move smack more and more like a cave-in to DOE's corporate contractors. 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) have written letters to Bodman opposing the changes.

According to the Los Alamos Monitor, Heidi Kelsey of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Newsbulletin reported that Bodman delivered a video address to the laboratory where he
"emphasized safety, responsibility and personal accountability," in his closed-circuit talk from the Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C.

"Bodman expressed concerns about an increase in the number of accidents across the DOE complex and called for improvement in safety oversight," she wrote. Among the department's accomplishments noted was "balancing safety with cost effectiveness."

But the secretary is also reported to have said that there was a need for change and that those changes would "focus on establishing a safer work environment through individual accountability, enhancing performance due to collaboration throughout the complex and considering DOE's financial responsibility to the American taxpayer," as Kelsey summarized a portion of the talk.
Bodman was apparently not very convincing:
Answers were provided for questions such as, "Will ES&H get lost in the security organization?"

The answer: "No, security and safety will be equal partners."
How do we know that? The current Office of Security and Safety will "flip" the terms to become the Office of Safety and Security.

OK, I feel much better now.

In their letter to Bodman, the three former Assistant Secretaries of ES&H,
Paul Ziemer (1990-93), Tara O'Toole (1993-1997) and David Michaels (1998-2002) warned that, given the focus of contractors as well as DOE field managers on production schedules, the action would "reinforce the view that environment, safety, health and security concerns are not a high priority for the Department."

Steelworkers President Leo Gerard
addressed the elimination of the Assistant Secretary's, a position that is confirmed by and accountable to Congress.
It is hard to imagine that the best safety option is consolidating safety functions in a lower tier organization under the leadership of a career individual who is not accountable to Congress.
Governors Richardson and Gregoire pointed out that absent any external studies that showed that the Department is ineffectual and dysfunctional, "there appears to be no compelling reason that the Department needs to reduce or change its function." They also expressed concern that DOE's former medical screening program will lose institutional support if the Department is dismantled.
The screening program has identified over 1,000 cases of beryllium-related illness in former workers, which not only fulfills a corporate responsibility to cold war era workers, but its work informs future health and safety policy by quantifying the consequences of inadequate worker protections.
But, Bodman might ask,
are we "balancing safety with cost effectiveness?"