Washington, DC — A new Inspector General audit finds that the Interior Department suffers from serious health and safety deficiencies “which result in inadequate protection of employees and the public.” One of the highest levels of health complaints comes out of Interior’s own headquarters building which is being completely reconstructed while keeping the staff in place, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The March 26, 2008 Inspector General (IG) audit report entitled “Health and Safety Concerns at Department of the Interior’s facilities” finds that –
- Interior’s “employee accident rate is one of the highest in the federal government” yet data on the cause of accidents is “missing” or “cannot be tracked” in more than a quarter of incidents.
- More than one in five (22%) of all Interior employees responding to an IG survey stated that “uncorrected serious health and safety issues exist at my workplace” with more than one in four National Park Service (26%), Bureau of Indian Affairs (29%) and Interior Headquarters staff (28%) registering such fears; and
- A long string of negative safety and health reports about the Interior headquarters modernization from outside agencies has not allayed employee complaints as “employees continue to express concerns regarding their health that they attribute to working in the building.”
At an all-employee meeting yesterday, Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett (substituting for an absent Secretary Dirk Kempthorne) announced that the next phase of modernization would be “paused” this July to allow the General Services Administration to evaluate contractor plans for protecting workers. No detail as to the length or quality of the review was given. Critical information about the condition of the Main Interior Building, such as the results of last year’s safety review, often is not given to employees.
“Keeping office workers in the middle of a construction site, breathing smoke, fumes and dust for years, is the height of irresponsibility” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the HQ modernization began in 2002 and will continue until 2012. “Even as Interior celebrates Safety Week, we are still getting anguished calls from headquarters workers too afraid or frustrated to contact their own management.”
One recurrent theme in the IG audit is the lack of leadership at Interior on safety issues. The top official responsible for safety management is Deputy Assistant Secretary Paul Hoffman, a former Dick Cheney aide who was banished from overseeing the Park Service after several ham-handed rewrites of scientific assessments and management policies. Perhaps not surprisingly, less than half (45%) of the staff working directly under Hoffman believe “health and safety is a priority of senior level management.”
“Paul Hoffman is the last person who should be in charge of employee health and safety,” added Ruch, noting Hoffman was the officials who removed U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers in 2004 for raising safety problems. “This audit makes a strong case for firing Hoffman tomorrow and bringing in professional managers for a troubled agency struggling through the last months of this administration.”