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OSHA must release records showing riskiest work sites

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  1. Freedom of Information

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OSHA must release records showing riskiest work sites

  • The New York Times won a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Labor for information that will help determine where the riskiest work places are.

Aug. 6, 2004 — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration must give The New York Times records showing the health and injury rates at 13,000 work cites the agency identified as having rates “considerably greater than the national average,” a federal district court judge in Manhattan ruled July 29.

The Department of Labor had not given reporter David Barstow records he sought from OSHA, an agency within the department, through a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2002. The department claimed that records gathered from the employers about their employees’ lost work days could be considered exempt confidential business information, and that OSHA would have to contact all13,000 employers before the records could be released.

OSHA described that task as “too burdensome” and told the court that the Times had demanded that it “squander its limited time and resources in gathering information” for reporters.

Judge Shira Scheindlin rejected that argument. In February 2003 the agency required employers to post at work sites the number of hours employees worked, so that type of information was no longer considered confidential, she said. She also noted that even before 2003, when the agency had contacted employers for their views on disclosure in response to more limited requests, only a few had objected to disclosure, further weakening the department’s argument that disclosure would reveal confidential commercial information.

Following an executive order issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, federal agencies that receive FOI requests for records submitted by businesses that might contain proprietary information must give the businesses a chance to argue against disclosure. However, the agencies and not the businesses make a determination as to whether the information is actually exempt.

The Times reported this week that although the agency has identified work sites as having worker injuries above an established norm, it has not given out injury rates for specific sites or any ranking of worst offenders. It was difficult “for reporters or the public to know where it was riskiest to work and whether the agency was effective in bringing about improvements,” the Times wrote.

(The New York Times Co. v. U.S. Department of Labor; Media attorney: David McGraw, New York City) RD

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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