Worker Safety and Health at Department of Energy Sites

GAO-13-497R Published: May 29, 2013. Publicly Released: May 29, 2013.
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What GAO Found

There are several key similarities and differences between Part 851, OSHA regulations, and the OSH Act. Several key similarities are that Part 851 incorporates by reference almost all OSHA standards and authorizes workers to file complaints about unsafe working conditions or hazards in the workplace. Several key differences are that Part 851 incorporates additional industry standards and authorizes DOE to accept hazard controls--in certain nonoperational facilities--that are not otherwise fully compliant with applicable DOE regulations for worker health and safety.

Furthermore, the DOE, Labor, and OSHA officials, and union and contractor representatives we interviewed cited various Part 851 regulations as either equally protective or more protective than OSHA regulations and the OSH Act; only one Part 851 standard was cited as possibly less protective and only by contractor representatives. For example, DOE officials and union and contractor representatives generally viewed Part 851 as at least as protective as OSHA regulations and the OSH Act because it incorporates essentially all OSHA standards and has a general duty clause--which requires employers to protect the health and safety of workers even when no specific standards exist--as does the OSH Act.

Why GAO Did This Study

Workers at DOE sites perform a wide range of nuclear and non-nuclear activities. Non-nuclear activities include construction, routine maintenance, and operating equipment, all of which run the risk of accidents. The consequences of these accidents could be less severe than those involving nuclear materials but could nevertheless result in injuries, long-term illnesses, or even death.

In 2006, DOE promulgated regulations--10 C.F.R. Part 851 (Part 851)--which currently govern contractors' worker safety and health at certain DOE sites. In recent years, DOE contractors as well as members of Congress have raised the possibility of revising Part 851 or making a federal agency other than DOE responsible for regulating worker health and safety at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separately organized agency within DOE responsible for the management and security of the nation's nuclear weapons programs.

This report formally transmits the briefing slides presented to committee staff in March 2013 in response to Senate Report No. 112-173, accompanying S. 3254, a version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, that requested GAO review Part 851. This report identifies (1) key similarities and differences between Part 851, OSHA regulations, and the OSH Act; and (2) views of DOE, Labor, and OSHA officials; union representatives; and contractor representatives on whether Part 851 is equally, less, or more protective than OSHA regulations and the OSH Act.

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