The federal government awards billions of dollars in contracts to companies that commit serious health and safety violations, many of them willful and some contributing to fatal accidents, an investigative study by the General Accounting Office shows.
Poor communication among federal agencies is largely responsible, the GAO concluded.
The Defense Department and other government agencies gave $38 billion in contracts in the 1994 fiscal year to companies whose violations were judged serious enough to warrant stiff federal penalties for breaking workplace safety rules. More than $1 of every $5 - $38 billion of $176 billion - paid to federal contractors went to 261 companies that were in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, according to the report by the GAO, the watchdog agency for Congress. "Even though federal agencies may deny the awarding of contracts . . . for many different reasons, it appears this authority is rarely exercised for safety and health violations in part because contracting officials lack information as to which contractors are OSHA violators," the report states. This is the first such study relating federal contracts to workplace safety data. The report, which took a year and is to be made public today, was requested by Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill. He wants to restrict companies with a record of serious safety violations from getting federal contracts. "It's not that federal contractors are worse or atypical," Tom Hester, Simon's assistant labor counsel, said Friday. "The point is that they are federal contractors and therefore can be held to a higher standard. We should not reward companies that seriously violate safety and health laws with federal taxpayer dollars." One way to improve the situation, the GAO writes, would be better sharing of information among government agencies - specifically between Occupational Safety and Health and agencies that award contracts - "to increase the likelihood that a company's safety and health record will be considered in contracting decisions." The report also suggests that federal safety officials target contractors that violate safety regulations with more frequent inspections. "We're not criticizing OSHA; they're finding violators," a GAO official said Friday. "It's a lack of sharing of information between OSHA and the contracting agencies." Three-quarters of the $38 billion awarded to contractors in violation during the 1994 fiscal year - Oct. 1, 1993, to Sept. 30, 1994 - came from the biggest federal contracting agency, the Department of Defense, chiefly the Navy and Air Force. The Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were next. …