July 13, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 3Comment

I happened upon a statement issued last week by the Labor Department saying that OSHA was seeking a first-ever “enterprise-wide” remedy to compel the US Postal Service (USPS) to fix electrical hazards in its 350 processing and distribution (P&D) centers. Twenty-nine of the 350 P&D facilities are designated as OSHA VPP sites, but we don’t know if any of those sites are plagued with these electrical hazards. In the statement, OSHA Asst. Secretary David Michaels said:

“Even though it was aware of the hazards, USPS failed to institute the necessary measures to protect its workers. The complaint filed today seeks to put a stop to this irresponsible behavior.” [emphasis added]

When I read “irresponsible behavior” I wondered who exactly should be held accountable for it? Does responsibility fall to the general managers at each of these 350 P&D centers, or higher up the chain of command?

The Postmaster General and Chief Executive Officer is Mr. John E. Potter, but perhaps it was the duty of the deputy postmaster, Mr. Patrick R. Donahoe, who is in charge of day-to-day operations including the USPS’s 33,000 facilities. We know that the USPS has gone through some tough budget woes, but that’s not an excuse that other employers can use for violating the law.

Maybe those who should be held to account are the USPS’s Board of Governors. Members of the 10-person Board include Louis J. Giuliano (Chairman), Thurgood Marshall, Jr., (Vice Chairman), former congressman James H. Bilbray, and former OMB/OIRA senior official James C. Miller III. Their responsibilities include:

“directs and controls its expenditures, reviews its practices, conducts long-range planning, and sets policies on all postal matters. The Board takes up matters such as service standards, capital investments and facilities projects exceeding $25 million.”

I wonder their reaction to being taken to task by OSHA for such fundamental safety issues.

OSHA says that its:

“inspections have revealed numerous violations of similar worker safety standards at USPS facilities throughout the nation. …USPS failed to adequately train workers in recognizing electrical hazards and how to work safely around such hazards, and did not provide workers with the appropriate tools and personal protective equipment to avoid injury or death while working around and on electrical equipment.”

That’s a pretty grim assessment of the USPS’s corporate safety culture–the 2nd largest civilian employer in the U.S.

In 2005, USPS was admitted into OSHA’s corporate VPP program. This program is reserved for corporations that

“demonstrate a strong commitment to employee safety and health ….and have established, standardized corporate-level safety and health management systems, effectively implemented organization-wide as well as internal audit/screening processes that evaluate their facilities for safety and health performance.”

OSHA’s website says that under the VPP corporate program there are “streamlined processes” for approval to help expand the number of VPP participants. At the celebration ceremony at USPS headquarters, Postmaster John Potter said his organization was being:

“Recognized for its industry leadership, its employee-driven safety initiatives, and it commitment to improving workplace safety and health” and that “Safety and health add value to our lives, to our workplace, and to our business.”

Currently, there are a couple dozen USPS P&D facilities designated as VPP sites.

I wonder how we might learn something from this situation. OSHA’s statement suggests these electrical problems in USPS P&D facilities are a wide-spread problem. How about a case study examining how a large organization purports to embrace worker health and safety, has 29 sites designated as VPP, but is now the subject of the Labor Department’s first-ever enterprise wide enforcement action.

3 thoughts on “OSHA takes US Postal Service to task for electrical hazards

  1. there is more to this than meets the eye,i think.the Vets Hospital in Minneapolis got hit with the same electrical hazard inspection some months ago.having worked there i was somewhat puzzled.
    you can’t bring your own fan in without it being approved.every space that had some sort of power box and wiring that i saw into from the hallway when guys were working had all the “look out!” warnings signs..so on.the language in the Post Office report is almost word for word as what came out of the Vets Hospital report,it made the news here,i’m retired so not involved.i have a feeling someone is trying to move in on the electrical work with a private company to take it away from the government workers who have things like health care,retirement,and a living wage or get someones brother-in-law some consulting work.

  2. The USPS failed to recognize their electronic technicians as employees being exposed to live parts when troubleshooting 120, 220, and sometimes 480 volts.

    In the maintenance dept., you have trades and custodial workers. Trades are the mechanics and ETs. The custodial is just that – custodians. When Custodians are promoted to Maintenance Managers, what do they know about lockout/tagout and working on hot equipment? Are there former custodians in DC running the show for these poor maintenance people?

    They deserve to be hit hard when the safety people all the way up the ladder know that their maintenance people were exposed and failed to act responsibly. Even the regional attorneys knew about this because they’re the ones trying to settle the cases.

    As far as VPP goes, the Bush Administration diluted the true meaning of a VPP company. Look who the team members were, SGEs and CASs. Inspections that used to take 2 weeks to get VPP was reduced down to less than 5 days. SGEs don’t have the experience OSHA inspectors do. If a real team of inspectors went into those VPP plants, they’d find the same problems. Did OSHA even send in someone with an electrical background or at least have the intelligence to ask the right questions? VPP has become total mockery.

    The APWU instructed their union presidents to file complaints based on an inspection out of a small OSHA office in Maine. Shame on those OSHA offices who wouldn’t allow the inspectors to develop their cases because they had to keep up with their insepction goals. These pricey cases take a lot of time to develop and some offices just wouldn’t allow the time.

    The USPS has no budget woes. They are looking at some type of reimbursement from the APWU for overpaying $75B into their pension fund. Several million in OSHA fines is a drop in the hat. So now, are they going to pull a WalMart and spend even more with a high profile law firm to fight the fines?

    In the mean time, what happens if a maintenance person dies? I think that would be criminal and people must be sent to prison. They should get over their egos and do the right thing by working on their safety programs. Talk is cheap. A life is not.

  3. I’m currently working on an article regarding the complaint the DOL issued against the USPS for the November issue of my magazine, EC&M. It’s a magazine that covers issues regarding electrical construction and maintenance. Its readers are electrical engineers, contractors, and electrical maintenance personnel. I’m having trouble getting the specifics from the USPS, although it did detail the steps it’s taking to remediate the situation. If anyone knows the nature of the electrical hazards or how an organization lauded for its safety record came to be in this position, I’d love to include your comments in the article. Please feel free to contact me at beck.ireland@penton.com or (913) 967-1806.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.