The Pentagon is facing scrutiny over how it tracks and responds to defense contractors’ workplace safety violations. Credit: AP

Sen. Elizabeth Warren this week called on the Pentagon and the nation’s workplace safety regulator to tighten oversight to prevent companies from winning lucrative contracts if they have put workers in harm’s way.

In letters to the Department of Defense and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Warren cited a report released in February by the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, which examined how the Pentagon tracks and responds to defense contractors’ workplace safety violations. Nearly 80 percent of the contractors inspected by labor regulators that were reviewed had been cited for at least one violation that endangered workers. Nearly half of the contractors had at least one serious violation. In multiple cases, as many as seven workers died.

The GAO review complied with a provision Warren wrote into the 2018 defense policy bill, a provision prompted by an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Our reporting found that major private shipbuilders for the Navy and Coast Guard had received more than $100 billion in public money despite serious safety lapses that endangered, injured and killed workers. At the time, the Navy did not take public action in response to these findings, saying, “We are not the overlords of private shipyards when it comes to workplace safety.”

“These (GAO) findings are disturbing, because they strongly suggest that many companies receiving billions of dollars in manufacturing and construction contracts from DOD are seriously endangering the health and safety of their employees in violation of federal law,” Warren, of Massachusetts, wrote in her letter to Ellen Lord, undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. “The prevalence of workplace safety and health violations among DOD contractors revealed by GAO’s findings is unacceptable.”

Officials at the Defense Department and OSHA did not respond to Reveal’s requests for comment.

In her requests this week, Warren asked the Pentagon and OSHA to provide details by July 8 on how they will carry out the GAO’s recommendations to improve oversight of the contracting process. The GAO found Pentagon officials do not always consider the safety records of companies when reviewing contracting bids. In addition, it found that missing OSHA data makes it difficult to track down some companies in OSHA’s database.

In response to the GAO’s recommendations, the Defense Department said that by June 30 it would advise contracting officials to look up health and safety violations, which are published on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s website, when evaluating prospective contractors. Warren’s office asked whether Pentagon officials met this goal and whether they will train contracting officers to search for citations and severe injuries. Defense officials also promised to complete an assessment by Jan. 31, 2020, on how the agency could rate all contractors on safety.

Warren also asked whether Pentagon officials have reviewed the efficacy of safety performance ratings and whether they should be applied more broadly for all contracts in construction and highrisk industries such as shipbuilding and manufacturing.

The GAO also suggested OSHA collect unique identifiers from all employers to help contracting officials determine whether prospective federal contractors had incurred safety violations, or whether projects under federal contracts had resulted in worker injuries or deaths. Warren asked how the agency will accomplish this goal. Further, she asked whether agency officials would help the Defense Department review the safety records of contractors in dangerous industries.

“It is unacceptable that the government would be finding labor law violations and then doing business with the violators,” said Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program. “I’m no shipbuilder, but it’s hard to believe that you can’t build a ship and keep the workers safe. Government agencies need to coordinate so that government contractors are at the very least following basic workplace laws.”

Jennifer Gollan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.

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Jennifer Gollan is an award-winning reporter. Her investigation When Abusers Keep Their Guns, which exposed how perpetrators often kill their intimate partners with guns they possess unlawfully, spurred sweeping provisions in federal law that greatly expanded the power of local and state police and prosecutors to crack down on abusers with illegal firearms. The project won a 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and has been nominated for a 2022 Emmy Award.

Gollan also has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to shoddy tire manufacturing practices that kill motorists. Her series on rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry, Caregivers and Takers, prompted a congressional hearing and a statewide enforcement sweep in California to recover workers’ wages. Another investigation – focused on how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured on the job – led to tightened federal oversight of contractors’ safety violations.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian US and Politico Magazine, as well as on PBS NewsHour and Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program. Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing awards. Gollan is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.