To feds' good health

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is asking for funding to beef up efforts to ensure the safety and health of federal workers.

For one thing, OSHA included in its fiscal 2001 budget submission a request for additional funds to handle whistle-blower complaints. Although most agencies shun whistle-blowers, OSHA says it loves them.

Strengthening whistle-blower protections is one of the administration's highest priorities, said Charles Jeffress, assistant secretary for OSHA, testifying before Congress. "If workers are to exercise their right to a safe and healthful workplace, they must be protected from retaliation or discrimination by their employers," he said. Apparently, OSHA relies heavily on whistle-blowers for tips about unsafe working conditions at federal agencies. Because it is asking for more money to handle whistle-blower complaints, it sounds as if this is a thriving activity.

OSHA also says it wants to reduce the overall injury rate among federal workers by 3 percent each year during a five-year period. And for those locations with the highest rates of serious injuries, OSHA wants a 10 percent reduction.

OSHA says it is already making strides in reducing the overall occupational injury and illness rate. In fact, at 6.7 incidents per 100 workers, the rate is at the lowest since the agency was created. I don't expect OSHA to do such a good job that they will put themselves out of business, but it looks like they're trying.

As part of this effort, OSHA wants to implement an ergonomics safety program to reduce the number of work-related musculoskeletal disorders, the most common type of work-related medical disorder. Expect to be sitting in better chairs if OSHA is successful.

OSHA's ergonomics proposal, which it announced Nov. 22, 1999, would impact the public and private sectors. OSHA says that its new standard will spare 300,000 workers from painful, potentially disabling injuries and save the country $9 billion each year. Sounds good to me.

Federal and postal unions are backing the OSHA-proposed program. However, some private companies want OSHA to hold off on its proposal until a study is completed. Those companies argue that there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that musculoskeletal disorders are caused by workplace conditions. Of course, OSHA doesn't agree, having spent 10 years studying this issue.

The National Association of Manufacturers claims that the cost of implementing the proposed OSHA standard will be $6.7 billion the first year, but OSHA estimates the cost at $4.2 billion. Either way, we're talking big bucks. Although implementing the OSHA program would put money in the pockets of companies that manufacture ergonomics equipment, businesses would have to pick up the tab for that equipment — and they don't want to. And you thought only the federal government was insensitive to the needs of its employees!

OSHA says it hopes to implement the program by the end of this year. I wish the agency well.

—Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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