Tuesday, November 28, 2006

GAO Suggests Subjects For Workplace Safety Oversight

The Democrats will soon be in control of Congress, and as we've noted, after 12 long years (with a short exception in the Senate) they'll have an opportunity to organize oversight hearings concerning how the Bush administration has been operating the federal government.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has started contributed to the discussion with a report about needed oversight subjects. One target for near-term oversight, according to the GAO is "Review the Effectiveness of Strategies to Ensure Workplace Safety." The GAO says that Congress should:
  • Determine how well the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) enforcement program has adapted to changes in the workforce, including demographic changes, work arrangements, and the use of new technology.

  • Assess the effectiveness of OSHA’s recent efforts to provide assistance to employers in improving the safety and health of workers through compliance assistance programs, such as the Voluntary Protection Program and alliances with employers.

  • Examine the impact of recent efforts by the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to protect the safety and health of mine workers, particularly those who work in underground coal mines.

  • Assess the preparedness of federal agencies to protect their employees in emergencies, such as a pandemic, while relying on a multi-sector workforce to perform its essential operations and return to normal operations.
The GAO footnotes previous reports, including a 2004 report that states that there is no evidence that OSHA's voluntary programs are effective, in addition to a 2003 GAO report on MSHA's effectiveness and a 2005 report on safety in the meat and poultry industry.

The report notes that there have been significant changes in the demographics of the national workforce and changes in the nature of work itself
For example, traditional work arrangements are giving way to alternatives such as temporary employment, blended workforces, and teleworking. Industries such as meatpacking have had large increases in the number of immigrant workers, and membership in organized labor has declined.
And this is an interesting statement, when you think about it.
Now more than ever, it is important to find the right balance between ensuring the safety and health of workers and employers’ needs to increase productivity in an increasingly competitive global environment.
Looking closely, this statement seems to contradict the rhetoric spewing regularly from OSHA -- namely that there is not conflict between safety and productivity; on the contrary, they go together.

The GAO, on the other hand seems to be saying that safety and product are a zero-sum game -- like a teeter-totter, when one side goes up, the other goes down. Perfect safety means lousy productivity. Maximum productivity means lousy safety. The mission is to balance the two. And if this is, indeed the case, it speaks more for the importance of strong enforcement -- to force the balancing act -- as opposed to more voluntary activities, which would seem to contradict employers' naturaly inclination to increase productivity and profit -- at the expense of safety.

But why "now, more than ever?"