March 14, 2012 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

To mark Sunshine Week, the annual initiative to promote freedom of information and government openness, I’m examining OSHA’s performance in disclosing information about worker fatality cases. My interest in this particular transparency issue stems back to the first year of the Obama Administration, when in October 2009, a new feature appeared front-and-center on federal OSHA’s homepage. It read: “Worker Fatalities.”

I gave OSHA’s new leadership credit for reminding visitors to its website that workers are killed everyday on the job, many from preventable causes. The weekly postings by OSHA listed the name of the employer, the incident date and a brief description, such as “Victim was working from the raised bucket of an aerial device. The boom and bucket fell to the ground.”

This was a good first step by OSHA to both raise awareness about the toll of fatal on-the-job injuries and describe the agency’s role with respect to investigating them. The agency acknowledged the limitation of the preliminary worker fatality information, but noted:

“After OSHA’s investigation is complete, these reports will be updated with inspection results and citation information.”

OSHA’s statute of limitations for issuing citations and penalties is six months. I assumed it wouldn’t be too long a wait before the agency began updating each weekly posting with its investigation findings. In some cases, OSHA may have determined that the fatally-injured individual was self-employed and therefore no investigation was warranted. In others, OSHA may have conducted an inspection but did not identify any violations of health or safety standards. Finally, some post-fatality inspections may have revealed serious or even willful violations of OSHA standards, and citations and monetary penalties were proposed. It was easy to imagine how each fatality case entry would be amended with this type of information.

More than two years later, however, OSHA has yet to update any of these weekly fatality reports. Not the first report, describing cases occurring between June 23 – July 24, 2009, or any of the 133 weekly reports posted since then. Those of us who want to know whether OSHA conducted an inspection and issued any citations have to conduct incident-by-incident searches using either this or this tool. If an employer’s name doesn’t appear in your search results, you’re never really sure whether that means OSHA has never inspected that employer, or the search engine is just not recognizing the name.

The Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative boasts of unprecedented levels of transparency and access to information. The White House has an Open Government blog, a National Action Plan for Open Government, a scorecard for Open Government progress, and more. The Labor Department has its own Open Government plan to support the President’s initiative. Having contests to create apps or mashups to merge datasets may attract publicity, but when I hear the phrase “open government,” I think of something much more fundamental. It includes being able to look at a list of worker-fatality incidents posted on OSHA’s website and being able to easily determine how the agency responded.

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