Open, Accountable Government
E-Gov Spotlight: Department of Labor's Enforcement Data Tool Provides Access to Worker Safety Information
by Sofia Plagakis, 4/8/2014
During Workers' Memorial Day on April 28, the country will honor Americans who have died from a job-related illness or injury. Relevant to that commemoration is the Department of Labor's online enforcement database, which sheds light on safety enforcement actions and company performance in protecting workers from injury, illness, and death.
What Is the Department of Labor's Enforcement Database?
The Department of Labor (DOL) released the database in April 2010 as part of President Barack Obama's Open Government Initiative. "By making this information available and easy to use, we're helping to ensure a level playing field for employers who follow the law," said former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. Since its initial release, the agency has undertaken several efforts to improve the site.
The DOL Data Enforcement database centralizes information from five separate agency programs:
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): about 100,000 inspections conducted annually, violations, citations, penalties, and any accident investigation data.
- Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA): data about mines, mine operators, inspections, violations, and accidents.
- Employee Benefits and Security Administration (EBSA): data about enforcement efforts related to funding and investments of about 800,000 retirement and welfare benefits plans.
- Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program: federal contractor compliance evaluations and compliant investigations since 2004.
- Wage and Hour Division: violations, back-wage amounts, number of employees due back wages, and civil penalties assessed.
Using the Site
The enforcement database homepage presents users with an interactive map of the United States that displays inspection and violation data of companies and mines. The map also serves as an interface allowing visitors to drill down to state and local data and identify mine-related violations or accidents. An "agencies & views" tab allows users to search by agency, state, and/or zip code.
Facilities are marked by a blue or red icon – red denotes facilities with violations and blue signifies facilities without any violations. When users select a specific red or blue marker, a pop-up provides basic information on the facility, number of inspections conducted and citations issued, initial or current penalties, and a link to the facility's or the mine's entire history.
For example, users looking at an individual mine can click on a "View Mine History" link, which redirects them to a range of facility information, from the mine's ID number to the operator name and number of accidents. Users can then select the mine ID and the number of accidents to learn about the type of injury or illness that occurred (e.g., death or lost work time) and related enforcement actions.
Users can also access data and refine their search options through the Search tab, located on the homepage menu above the interactive map. Visitors can use a variety of different fields, such as exact dataset, agency, penalty amount, North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code, Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) number, violations, back wages a facility has agreed to pay, year, location, and company. When conducting a search on a particular company, it is useful that the database includes a "smart text feature," which helps users find the exact company they are looking for and to ensure accurate spelling.
Another visually appealing search tool is called D'Vis, which is an interactive feature that allows users to narrow down data to precise search selections and represents them in a colorful and dynamic pie chart. One particularly innovative feature of D'Vis is that it generates a unique downloadable dataset for each selection searched. For example, the left side of the screen functions as a map to remind users which selections they have made. This powerful tool, however, requires some practice to use, because selecting certain terms can cancel searches. For example, if a user searched for OSHA inspections in Illinois in 2013 but then pressed the state field again, the search selection cancels out. Also, pressing the search engine's Back key will return users to the Search page.
Users can also access data through the labs and the data catalog, both accessible from the homepage menu. The labs feature allows users to manipulate mining and OSHA data to create graphs and other visualizations. Users can benefit from watching the tutorial to better understand what the labs can show and how to use the feature effectively. The data catalog is a compilation of related data that can be easily downloaded as an Excel file.
A major strength of the website is the extensive and centralized labor enforcement data from around the country. Prior to the website's creation, users would have to go to each department and program's website to access portions of the data. DOL is increasingly making worker safety data available, which empowers communities and individuals to make informed employment and business decisions.
Another strength is the visually appealing presentation of the enforcement and inspection data, from the simple interactive map to the more extensive pie charts and graphs. Even if an individual is unfamiliar with datasets, regulations, and agencies, the site conveys the most important information – what and when have facilities been inspected and what, if any, violations have occurred? The site also provides more detailed information and downloadable data for more advanced users, with thorough descriptions of industry codes, links to pertinent information, and tutorials for several of the search tools.
The website also deserves credit for using a variety of tools to allow greater dispersal of information and encouraging user feedback and ideas. Users can download raw datasets in Excel files and access information on the site via Twitter or Facebook. This diversity of communications methods means that more people will get and use this important data.
Weaknesses and Recommendations
One shortcoming of the site is that some of the most basic data is not available in detail from the interactive map or is not as easily accessible as it could be. For example, the facility pop-ups on the interactive map provide the number of violations, but not whether there were any injuries or deaths at the location. Users have to undergo various steps to find that data. The interactive map would benefit from including accident data, including injuries and deaths (DOL indicated that this feature may be available in the future). Alternatively, the site could allow users to select what facility information will appear in the pop-ups.
In addition, while data involving OSHA's accident investigations is important and revealing, it is limited because of a backlog of unreviewed cases going back to 2008.
The site would also benefit from better use of tutorial materials. The search tools are advanced and powerful, but they are not as intuitive as they could be, so tutorials are important for new users to get the most from these functions. Although the site features several tutorials, they could be easier to find. Currently, they are located below the interactive map on the homepage. A message or pop-up that encourages users to view available tutorials might help. Further, tutorials are in video format. Adding a written list of instructions would make it easier to refer back when using the database.
Another limitation, all too common on government websites, is the lack of bilingual options. Adding a second language to the site would significantly expand the audience that could use the information. Those who do not speak English are more likely to face poor worker safety and health issues and should not be left in the dark about potential risks and employer violations.
Overall, the Department of Labor's Data Enforcement site is a transparent, interactive, and educational government website for worker safety and labor enforcement information. The extensive data, visually appealing tools (maps and graphs), and diverse means to receive updates and provide feedback speak well of the efforts made to build a useful tool for everyone. However, some improvements could be made to better reach Spanish speakers, improve the use of tutorials, and expand the data available on the interactive map. These issues are fairly easy to overcome and would make the site even more useful to visitors.