The News Without Transparency: ‘Model Workplaces’ Not Always So Safe

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At first glance, the website for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)–an enforcement agency within the Department of Labor–seems to provide a plethora of information related to workplace safety and investigations into workplaces that have possibly violated safety regulations. However, upon further investigation, it becomes clear that not all of the information provided is useful or accessible, with much of the information relevant to the public kept off the website and only available through Freedom of Information Act requests.

This past July, Chris Hamby at the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News conducted an in-depth investigation of workplace safety at site locations participating in an OSHA-run program called the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), which exempts members from regular OSHA inspections. Hamby found it hard to prove whether any of the program’s participants had incurred any violations using the data provided on OSHA’s website. Hamby needed access to both the VPP dataset and the OSHA enforcement dataset to see if all program members were worthy of their status; as neither of these datasets were made publicly available, he had to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to retrieve them. In addition to the full datasets, Hamby had to submit FOIA requests for any information regarding specific inspections and violations. These requests are met with “mixed success depending on the region,” according to Hamby, and when the requested documents are provided they are frequently heavily redacted.

As Hamby investigated whether any of the VPP participants appeared in any enforcement cases he found that many of them  have had serious safety violations while maintaining their VPP status. The end result of this work is a phenomenal piece of investigative journalism that identifies weaknesses within OSHA and the programs they implement to keep workers safe. Because the information Hamby used in his investigation was scattered across multiple datasets, it is difficult to hold OSHA or the VPP member sites accountable. The data is so unclear and incoherent, according to Hamby, that it is possible these problems may have been previously unknown even to OSHA itself.

While Hamby’s entire investigation was conducted using OSHA data, almost none of it is publicly available. This reality is in stark contrast to the transparent, user-friendly online presence OSHA seems to be trying to promote. The OSHA website provides numerous searchable datasets, lots of workplace-safety related  statistics, and links to resources related to workplace safety on Data.gov. OSHA says that it “has implemented new search technology to provide faster and more accurate access to OSHA Inspection data.” Evidence of the Labor Department’s “We Can Help”campaign—a nationwide effort to educate workers about their rights and how to report if they are being treated unfairly in the workplace—is evident throughout the site. Unfortunately the lack of actual substantive data provided by OSHA makes it extremely difficult for the public to access the information needed to hold the agency accountable.

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“The News Without Transparency” shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we’ve redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you’d like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at mbuck@sunlightfoundation.com.

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