Since 1981, it has been popular to “bash” government-run services and agencies and claim that the “private sector” can do everything better. The fact is that, in the absence of the conflict of interest that often accompanies a profit motive, tax-payer funded government agencies that are properly accountable to the citizenry–as opposed to private, for-profit corporations which are accountable to their shareholders–can do a far better job of insuring the public good in some cases. The Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) and its responses to asbestos issues are a good example of government that serves the taxpayer when the right people are in charge. Recently, the Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri, where a non-profit urban renewal organization recently ran into asbestos-related problems (see “Kansas City Asbestos Violation Settled for $450K,” posted 2 January,) incurred an $84,000 fine when some of its workers were exposed to asbestos fibers.
One OSHA representative described the asbestos violations as “serious and willful.” The problem goes back to last summer, when an inspector from the Kansas City Health Department discovered asbestos-containing materials in a pile of construction debris. Apparently, hospital patients and visitors were not at risk for exposure.
However, this is by no means certain, as the OSHA investigation that resulted from the health inspector’s report focused on employee exposure. After the OSHA report was delivered, hospital administrators notified 85 employees that they may have been exposed to asbestos dust. The hospital has until 5 January 2008 to pay the fine, file a response disputing the OSHA charges, or appeal the amount of the fine. As of this writing, it is not clear what course of action the hospital administration will take. In the meantime, OSHA and the Kansas City Health Department should be commended for taking proper action in protecting the public and holding violators of environmental laws accountable. It is one more example of what government can do right when run by people who take public service seriously.