Report: OSHA Complaint System Should Be Improved

Each year, OSHA receives thousands of complaints from employees alleging hazardous working conditions. In order to improve efficiency, a recent report from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) suggests the Secretary of Labor take steps to improve the quality of information received from these complainants and ensure that all area offices respond to complaints consistently.

In his written response, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw disagreed with the recommendation to improve the quality of information, but explained that the agency is updating a directive on complaint procedures and in doing so would consider GAO's advice on improving compliance with OSHA's official complaint practices.

In general, OSHA responds to complaints according to the seriousness of the alleged hazard in order to conserve agency inspection resources. OSHA officials conduct on-site inspections in cases where they believe the alleged hazards could result in death or serious injury. For less serious hazards, OSHA generally investigates by phoning employers and faxing them a description of the alleged hazards.

GAO reported that many OSHA officials said some complainants provide erroneous information about the alleged hazards either because they do not understand what is truly hazardous or because of a desire to punish employers.

OSHA's practices for responding to complaints varied considerably among its 80 area offices, according to GAO. Agency policy calls for supervisors to evaluate each complaint. However, 22 of the 52 officials GAO interviewed said non-supervisory compliance officers in their offices sometimes decide whether to follow up on complaints with on-site inspections or through phone/fax investigations.

OSHA also requires regional administrators to audit annually their area office operations, but only five of the ten regions do so. Moreover, OSHA has no mechanism in place to recognize or address problems that have been identified in those regions that do conduct audits.

Among GAO's recommendations to OSHA:

  • Remind complainants of the penalties for providing false information;
  • Conduct outreach to employees regarding hazards;
  • Clarify who evaluates complaints and how this is done;
  • Develop a system for ensuring the regions complete audits;
  • Develop a system for using audit results to improve consistency of the complaint process.

In its response, OSHA argued that it is successful in screening out ill-founded complaints: a higher percentage of complaint inspections result in serious violations than do programmed, targeted inspections. The agency also worried that taking further steps might discourage employees from exercising their right to request inspections of unsafe workplaces.

OSHA did not respond to the recommendations that it develop a system for ensuring that the regions complete audits of the complaint process and that it use the results of the audits to improve consistency.

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