Tag Archives: Center for Effective Government

Timely Data Reduces Risk for American Workers

This is a belated Labor Day good news post. It’s the story of how one federal agency is putting critical data into the hands of workers who can use digital tools to hold employers immediately and effectively accountable for workplace safety

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for the workplace safety of millions of Americans, has stepped to the plate to give employees a better tool to watchdog their own work environment.

Observing that workplace injuries – and fatalities – are often preventable, Thomas Perez, who heads the Department of Labor, home of OSHA, is certain that the new rule will “help OSHA focus its resources and hold employers accountable for preventing them.”

The new rule takes a double-barreled approach:

First, the rule requires that employers notify OSHA within 24 hours when someone is injured – loses an eye, or a limb or is admitted to the hospital with a work related injury. Currently employers are required to report only incidents that result in “catastrophes,” i.e. incidents that result in three or more hospitalizations.

Second, the reports of injuries will be made public on OSHA’s website. In 2013 that would have meant prompt reporting of 3,929 workers who died in private industry workplace accidents.

The idea behind the immediate reporting and posting of the data is to expand access to the dangers on the part of employers and employees alike – to “embarrass” employers and to offer workers current and accessible data on workplace safety.

Though worker safety is the priority, there are economic benefits as well to what is being called the “name and shame” approach. Armed with data, workers themselves can spot problems and demand action. Writing in Bloomberg Businessweek Josh Eidelson notes the critical need for more eyes on the front lines: “Since 1981, OSHA has shed health and safety inspectors to cut costs while the number of U.S. employers has doubled, according to the Center for Effective Government. A report from the group estimated that at current staffing levels, it would take federal OSHA inspectors 131 years to visit every U.S workplace.”

This led me to the CEG website where I found an analysis of a complementary resource issued by the Department of Labor in conjunction with Workers’ Memorial Day last April 28th. Sofia Plagakis of CEG has plumbed the depths of the Department of Labor’s Online Enforcement database. (http://www.foreffectivegov.org/e-gov-spotlight-dept-of-labor-enforcement-data-tool-provides-access-worker-safety-information)

Don’t judge a database by its less than compelling title. In fact, the Online Enforcement database is a treasure trove of DOL data, including OSHA data on 100,000 inspections conducted annually, violations, citations, penalties and accident investigation data.

Other agency programs included in the merged database include reports from four agency divisions:

  • Wage and Hour Division – violations, back-wage amounts, number of employees due back wages, civil penalties assessed;
  • Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program – evaluations and compliant investigations;
  • Employee Benefits and Security Administration – data about enforcement efforts related to funding and investments of 800,000 retirement and welfare benefits plans; and
  • Mine Safety and Health Administration – data about mines, mine operators, inspections, violations and accidents.

Though the wheels of federal government may grind slowly, they do grind exceeding small. And it does behoove us to capitalize on the efforts, particularly when we think about the thousands of Americans who are directly affected by the data that the Department of Labor has put at our fingertips.

 

 

Rays of Hope from Sunshine Week 2013

It’s eight years now since the first Sunshine Week, celebrated this week, March 10-March16.  Sunshine Week  is a national initiative to promote discussion about the importance of freedom of information and open government.  The week was chosen to coincide with the birthday of James Madison (more about the Mr. Madison later).  At the national level the prime mover behind Sunshine Week was the American Society of News Editors, later joined by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In those eight years change on every front has transformed the very context in which we celebrate Sunshine Week 2013.   Change has occurred at such a dizzying pace that government, the press, and citizens may be at a loss, seeking for some framework to understand how open government could and should work in the 21st Century.

The fact that it is the press that initiated the concept of Sunshine Week is significant.  The media environment of today bears scant resemblance to what it was a decade ago.  Investigative reporting is more honored in the breach than in the observance.  Warp speed journalism doesn’t allow time for deep investigation.  The print press has faded in the wings as everyone with a smart phone is both a source and consumer of what passes for news.

The flow of information between government and the general populace is totally changed.  The government both gathers and produces information online – and with the change in format come challenges that confound agencies and constituencies alike.

Though the current administration has established policies to promote openness, the wheels of government grind slowly, and a strict diet of transparency is problematic at best.

So it is interesting to note what’s happening this week as the watchdogs of open government grapple with open government circa 2013.  Some examples:

  • Monday morning started with the Fourth Annual Department of Justice Sunshine Week Celebration at which the DOJ’s chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer led a discussion of federal agencies’ improvements in FOIA administration.
  • Symbolic but important, at the same time there was a rare viewing and discussion of the Freedom of Information Act at the National Archives, including a demonstration of the multi-agency FOIA portal.  Despite the bold pronouncement that “all agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” charges of recalcitrance on the part of agencies will undoubtedly surfaced at this session.
  • On Tuesday, the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center  (EPIC) will host two panel discussions examining transparency and national security in the Obama administration’s second term.   These are all-star panels on hot topics.  This is one of two Sunshine Week sessions that will be webcast – reservations requested.  The webcast is Noon-3:00 p.m.  RSVP to www.foreffectivegov.org/webcastsrsvp
  • Also on Tuesday, March 12, the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Committee will hold a panel discussion, 6:30 p.m., about the effect on the press  of laws enacted globally after 9-11.
  • On Wednesday, March 12, there will be a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “We the People: Fulfilling the Promise of Open Government Five Years after The OPEN Government Act.”
  • At the same time Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the George Washington University Law School will be asking the question: Does U.S. Secret Law Threaten our Democracy?
  • Thursday the Brennan Center for Justice will host a panel discussion on the topic “Secrecy and Security: The Future of Classification Reform.”  Meanwhile the Cato Institute is holding a workshop looking at legislative data and Wikipedia and the National Press Club will host a panel discussion on using FOIA.
  • Friday is the Annual National Freedom of Information Day conference, this year at the Newseum.  In morning sessions Open the Government will presents its eighth annual Sunshine Week examination of the state of openness in the federal government, focusing this year on the outlook for the President’s second term.  The day includes a keynote discussion with First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and a discussion of the new documentary Whistleblowers. The American Library Association will also presents it James Madison Award.  This FOI Day observance is the second of the week’s events that will be webcast beginning at 8:30 a.m. (7:30 CST)

It may tempting to think that these Sunshine Week activities are only for the Beltway Insiders and government geeks.  Still, without these Insiders, the watchdogs, the whistblowers and the faithful attendees at hearings and endless meetings,  the public right to access would surely be thwarted.

We depend on the eyes and ears – and collaborative efforts – of these observers to keep the decision-making processes remains open to the press and to the public.  They keep a watchful eye to be sure that the exigencies of the day do not interfere with the assumption of openness.  Though it may seem remote, consider these stories of the ways in which access to government information play out in the real world, the real world where it makes a difference to every one of us.

We may not be there to keep an eagle eye on the day’s decisions, but we live with the consequences.