Under prodding from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, private industry has been taking great strides toward installing sophisticated alarm systems, backup lighting and various other improvements designed to make the workplace safer.
But when it comes to workplaces in OSHA's own back yard, the safety improvements have largely been lacking.Just how lacking was demonstrated recently during a tour of key government buildings in the nation's capital, including parts of the Senate Hart Office Building and various areas in the Capitol Building itself. The tour, arranged by Congressional Quarterly, found many such health and safety hazards as:
- Overcrowding, inadequate lighting, unsafe electrical wiring, and a lack of standard fire protection measures as basic as smoke detectors.
- A variety of probable building code violations that could lead to fires, falls, cuts and burns, back injuries and exposure to toxic chemicals.
- Many office areas with too few exits, no emergency exit signs and no backup emergency lighting.
- Other areas with jumbled cables for television, computers and heavy electric equipment with too many extension lines hooked into too few outlets.
There are limits to how much OSHA can be blamed for this fiasco since Congress exempted itself from the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Belatedly, Congress is now moving to end this exemption along with a variety of others it bestowed upon itself over the years. But that step won't be quite enough.
What's also needed is single, central safety planning and enforcement office in the Capitol, a program considered elementary in the private sector. It probably ought to be a brand new office, since the Capitol Architect's Office doesn't seem up to the job. Though the existing architect's office has a safety engineering division, it serves only an advisory role and has no power to enforce codes. Besides, the present Capitol architect insists most congressional offices are already in "substantial" compliance with building codes and refused to go on the recent tour that showed otherwise. Imagine how OSHA would react if some private employer insisted that "substantial" compliance was good enough.
The way it's accomplished, however, is not nearly as important as making sure that Washington finally gets the message that safety, like charity, should begin at home.