Office of Compliance sits on inspections

The Office of Compliance has failed to release its biennial health and workplace-safety inspections report more than a month after it was due. Worker advocates who have complained for years about the lack of safety on Capitol Hill suggest that the missed deadline signals that Congress is not serious about complying with health and safety regulations.

The Office of Compliance — created by the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) of 1995 — oversees the implementation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations on Capitol Hill. Section 215(e) of the act requires that the general counsel’s office conduct inspections “on a regular basis, and at least once each Congress.”

Worker safety advocates say that Capitol Hill can be a dangerous place. Department of Labor statistics show that between 1997 and 2004 more than 6,000 work-related injuries and illnesses and two deaths occurred in the legislative branch.

“There is a whole host of very significant hazards that have been found over the years on Capitol Hill and need to be addressed,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety for the AFL-CIO. “The Hill is not just an office. … There is always a lot of construction going on as well.”

A 2002 Office of Compliance report found “significant safety and health hazards” on the Hill, such as blocked or locked fire doors and incomplete emergency response plans.

Carl Goldman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26, called for more improvements on employee awareness and training on OSHA matters.

General Counsel Peter Eveleth is in charge of the inspection that is more formally known as the OSHA Compliance Report. Eveleth, who has served as general counsel since June 2003, said his office is taking a different approach in assembling the inspections report for the 108th Congress.

“We are taking our time because it is so time-consuming,” Eveleth said. “We have over 15 million square feet of grounds and facilities to inspect, and we want to do it in as thorough a fashion as possible.”

He pointed to inadequate funding, staff shortages and a 2004 audit from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as reasons that the office had fallen behind on the report.

Last February, the GAO suggested various ways the office could improve its effectiveness, such as making its OSHA compliance reports more thorough.

A source familiar with the Office of Compliance told The Hill that Eveleth is pushing for a new $30,000 computer software system that would track inspections complaints.

“This is a case of disorganization and not knowing how to prioritize,” the source said. “I don’t see how [Eveleth] can rationalize paying for $30,000 worth of software for people to file safety complaints while saying he doesn’t have the resources to conduct the actual inspections on time.”

Eveleth responded, “It’s not a question of either/or; it’s a question of both. A lack of prioritization is exactly why we are acquiring this software, because it will give us the ability to track the abatements as they occur.”

Bill Thompson, executive director of the Office of Compliance, confirmed that this year marked the first time since the office was created in 1996 that the general counsel had failed to issue the OSHA report on time.

John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said that because Congress does not fall under the jurisdiction of the executive branch OSHA cannot issue monetary fines to members of Congress or to federal agencies, with the exception of the U.S. Postal Service.

The general counsel’s inspection team is made up of two and sometimes three people — including one OSHA inspector and at least one health and safety consultant.

Eveleth said that for the past two years his office had asked the oversight committees for additional resources, including an additional OSHA inspector.

Jennifer Hing, press secretary for Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) — who heads the House Appropriations Legislative Subcommittee — said, “The Office of Compliance’s budget request was fully vetted by our office, and we gave them the funding we felt was adequate and necessary.”

Thompson said that in 2004 the office asked Congress for roughly $2.5 million and received just over $2.2 million. The general counsel’s office spent $665,000 on safety- and health-related investigations. In fiscal year 2005, the office asked for $2.9 million and received about $2.4 million.

Jonathan Orr, communications director for the Office of Compliance, said that although the office deals with a number of fair-labor laws OSHA consumes the bulk of its resources.