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Obama worker-safety efforts face big challenges

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Implementing initiatives to protect the health and safety of American workers is among the top challenges facing the Obama administration's Labor Department as it heads into 2014, according to a new report from the agency's Inspector General.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration face serious hurdles moving forward on a variety of worker health and safety issues, according to the report.

Overall, U.S. workplace deaths have fallen steadily since OSHA was created in 1970. Most recently, for example, from 2011 to 2012, the fatal-injury rate fell from 3.5 to 3.2 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers.

However, with more than 8 million establishments under its jurisdiction, OSHA "is challenged in assuring that employers abate workplace safety and health hazards," the Inspector General said in a report made public Dec. 18.

"To that end, since it can only reach a fraction of the entities it regulates," the report said, "OSHA must target its compliance activities to those areas where it can have the greatest impact."

Recent audits, though, have found that OSHA has not always targeted the highest-risk industries and that the agency lacked any way to really demonstrate if its programs were improving worker health and safety across the country.

In another recent audit, the Inspector General reported serious problems with an OSHA program that excuses workplaces from certain inspections if they have good safety records.

The audit, made public Dec. 16, said 13 percent of the participants in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program, or VPP, actually had injury or illness rates higher than their industry averages or had been cited for safety and health violations. Still, OSHA allowed them to stay in the program.

"Moreover, OSHA policy allowed participants with injury and illness rates above industry averages to potentially remain in the program for up to 6 years, raising serious questions as to whether the companies were fully protecting their workers," the IG audit said.

At MSHA, the IG said officials remain challenged in maintaining a staff of experienced, diverse and properly trained inspectors to meet statutory enforcement obligations.

"This challenge will soon be exacerbated by retirements, with 39 percent of MSHA's health and safety personnel eligible to retire by 2017," the report said. "This is a particularly pressing issue given that it takes nearly two years to train new mine inspectors.

"Moreover, with seventy-eight percent of MSHA's top leadership becoming eligible for retirement by 2017, MSHA is challenged to develop future leaders in order to avoid leadership gaps in future years," the report said.

The report noted that MSHA "has made significant progress" in addressing agency weaknesses that preceded the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster but still needs to implement other recommendations for reform.

IG officials noted that mining death and injury rates were at all-time lows in 2011 and 2012, and that the trends continued into 2013.

"However," the report said, "mining remains an inherently dangerous industry with too many injuries and fatalities."

For the 100 recommendations resulting from the Upper Big Branch internal review, MSHA reports that it completed corrective actions for 68, while 32 are still in the process of being addressed.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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