Workplace Safety and Health:

OSHA Could Improve Federal Agencies' Safety Programs with a More Strategic Approach to Its Oversight

GAO-06-379: Published: Apr 21, 2006. Publicly Released: Apr 21, 2006.

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Federal workers' compensation costs exceeded $1.5 billion in 2004, with approximately 148,000 new claims filed that year. Because of concerns for the safety of federal workers, as well as the costs associated with unsafe workplaces, GAO described the characteristics of federal agencies' safety programs and the implementation challenges they face, and assessed how well the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) oversees and assists federal agencies' efforts to develop and administer their safety programs.

Based on a survey of 57 agencies, GAO found that most agencies reported having at least one activity for each of the six components generally associated with a sound safety program--(1) management commitment, (2) employee involvement, (3) education and training, (4) identification of hazards, (5) correction of hazards, and (6) medical management (which includes having a return-to-work program for injured employees). However, agencies faced implementation challenges that cut across the components in the areas of data management, accountability, and safety resources. The survey results indicated that many agencies do not have automated systems for tracking elements of their safety programs, such as training. In addition, several of the agencies did not demonstrate that their managers are held accountable for maintaining effective safety programs. Finally, many agency officials stated that, due to limited resources, they often must depend on safety officers with limited professional safety experience. OSHA's oversight of federal agencies' safety programs is not as effective as it could be because the agency does not use its enforcement and compliance assistance resources in a strategic manner. Although inspections are one of OSHA's primary enforcement tools, it does not conduct many inspections of federal worksites or have a national strategy for targeting worksites with high injury and illness rates for inspection. Furthermore, although OSHA is responsible for tracking violations that agencies dispute and reporting any unresolved disputes to the President, OSHA does not track these disputed violations or their resolution. In addition, although OSHA is required to review agencies' safety programs annually and submit a report on them to the President each year, as of January 2006, the last report submitted was for fiscal year 2000. Finally, while OSHA has a range of compliance assistance programs designed to help agencies comply with its regulations and improve safety, these programs are not being fully utilized.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct OSHA to conduct evaluations of the largest and most hazardous federal agencies as required.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Labor modified its approach for evaluating the level of agency safety and health programming, including methods such as onsite reviews, workplace inspections, occupational injury and illness data analysis, and safety and health report reviews. OSHA closely monitors the performance of the federal agencies in meeting the injury and illness reduction goals of the Presidential Safety, Health, and Return-to-Employment (SHARE) Initiative, originally established in 2004 and renewed for an additional three years through FY09. Many federal agencies have made significant progress in reducing both their total and lost time injury case rates (SHARE Goals 1 & 2). Through the use of modern techniques and enhanced template development, OSHA is also using the annual report request to federal agencies to survey specific topic areas, and is in the process of drafting the Secretary of Labor's FY09 Annual Report to the President on the overall status of safety and health in the federal sector. Additionally, OSHA is developing a new evaluation process using OSHA's well-established Form 33, a tool that focuses on whether an establishment has effective continual improvement procedures in place for its injury and illness prevention program. The questions address managerial and operational aspects of an establishment's injury and illness program and identify the strengths and weaknesses that exist in the program.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct OSHA to track violations disputed by federal agencies to their resolution and ensure that unresolved disputes are reported to the President.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OSHA has developed a separate tracking system in the Office of Federal Agency Programs for disputed violations that are forwarded to the National Office for resolution. There were no unresolved violations at the time of this audit. They anticipate one case to be formally forwarded to the National Office for resolution in the near future, which will be tracked appropriately.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct OSHA to develop a targeted inspection program for federal worksites based on the new worker injury and illness data federal agencies are required to collect by requiring that relevant portions or summaries of that data be included in agencies' annual reports to OSHA or by obtaining the data from agencies or worksites through periodic, selected surveys.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OSHA initiated a program for targeted federal agency inspections called Federal Agency Targeted Inspection Program (FEDTARG). Federal worksites with high numbers of lost-time injuries at departments with high injury rates have been selected for inspection. OSHA will further explore long-term strategies for the collection of federal agency injury and illness data, including possible use of a single electronic database such as the Department of Labor's Safety and Health Management Information System (SHIMS). As OSHA's federal agency data collection process improves, its targeting criteria will be further refined. OSHA finished implementing FEDTARG in 2008 and renewed it in 2009, but continued using OWCP data instead of injury and illness data to determine which sites to inspect. In addition, OSHA worked with a subcommittee of the Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health (FACOSH) and the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics to design a web-based system that will allow OSHA to collect site-specific data from the agencies. In 2010, OSHA again renewed the targeting program and used FY09 OWCP data to create a list of federal agency worksites that OSHA regions are required to inspect in FY10. A primary inspection list was developed using a random numbers table. On the primary list are 100% of the establishments reporting 100 or more lost time cases (LTCs), 50% of the establishments reporting 50 to 99 LTCs, and 10% of the establishments reporting 20 to 49 LTCs. OSHA regions that have the resources to conduct more targeted federal agency inspections than are included on their primary inspection list may request a secondary random inspection list from the Office of Federal Agency Programs. In addition, OSHA is drafting proposed regulatory changes that will allow the agency to collect this data on a recurring annual basis. Data from this government-wide system will be used, in part, to develop an inspection list of federal worksites with the highest injury and illness rates.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct OSHA to use evaluations, inspection data, and annual reports submitted by federal agencies to assess the effectiveness of their safety programs, and include, in OSHA's annual report to the President, an assessment of each agency's worker safety program and recommendations for improvement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, OSHA initiated an enhanced process in reviewing agency reports, injury and illness data, inspection results, new initiatives, and stated accomplishments to assess the quality of federal safety and health programs, focusing on programmatic strengths and weaknesses. It also took steps to enhance the reliability and consistency of government agency assessments. In 2007, agencies were provided a template to use in creating their reports, and their feedback has been systematically placed in a database and analyzed. Expanded information on specific topics was requested, including, for example, motor vehicle safety programs and seatbelt usage, transition to 29 CFR Part 1904 injury and illness recordkeeping (the new recordkeeping rule), and training provided to specific categories of employees. Descriptions of workplace fatalities were requested and are included in the agency summaries in the Report to the President. They also began following up with agencies that reported they are deficient in certain areas. For example, they prepared an individualized memo to each agency that indicated in their FY 2006 report that the new recordkeeping provisions have not yet been fully implemented. Each memo indicated the specific deficiency, advised that a similar request for information would be included in the FY 2007 request, and offered additional guidance and assistance if needed. Labor includes a summary of each agency's status over a broad range of issues in its annual report to the President. As of FY2010, OSHA continues to use agencies annual reports to update the President on the status of federal agencies occupational safety and health programs in an annual report, available on its public website. In addition, OSHA is developing new procedures for conducting evaluations of federal agencies that will allow it to collect and analyze data to make recommendations to the agencies' concerning improvements to their injury and illness prevention programs.

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