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OSHA Inspectors and the Workplace: Death By Attrition

Hiring freezes at federal agencies that were enacted as part of the Trump administration's efforts to shrink the federal government and save money were lifted in April, but will workers continue pay the cost?

Four percent – 40 inspectors out of 1,000. That’s the percentage decline in OSHA inspectors since Donald Trump took office and instituted a federal hiring freeze. It might not sound like much, but when we consider that OSHA already was understaffed, it’s a problem.

As Jordan Barab, a former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, pointed out in his blog post on Confined Space, “This is an agency that hasn’t had a budget increase since 2010, that is tasked with ensuring the safety and health of workers in 8 million workplaces. OSHA inspectors are at their lowest level in the history of the agency.”

When Ronald Reagan became president nearly 40 years ago in 1980, OSHA had nearly twice the number of inspectors that is has now, in an economy that was half the size of the current economy, Barab noted.

Trump lifted the hiring freeze in April, but many (all?) government agencies have been slow to respond. According to NBC News, OSHA had 54 vacancies among its inspection staff as of Sept. 30. While OSHA has hired or is in the process of hiring more inspectors, the agency will not say how many have been hired or what the target number of hires is.

In her article on the NBC News web site, “Number of OSHA workplace safety inspectors declines under Trump,” Suzy Khimm examines the issue of OSHA staffing.

She notes in her article that while the total number of inspections from October 2016 to September 2017 are up by several hundred (Barab claims this is the result of a focus on “easier and faster” construction inspections), some rural jurisdictions in the south are way down. OSHA told Khimm inspections were down because of hurricanes, not staffing, but Khimm’s response is that inspections in Mississippi were declining before the first hurricane of the season made landfall.

Writes Khimm, “In Mississippi, which has one of the country’s highest worker fatality and injury rates, the number of federal OSHA inspections fell by 26 percent from Trump’s inauguration in January to the end of September, according to public data.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of 2016 Fatal Occupational Injuries reported there were 5,190 workplace fatalities in 2016, a seven percent increase from 2015. The attrition in workplace inspectors and OSHA staffing didn’t start with the Trump administration – though it has increased dramatically in 2017 – but was a decrease in OSHA inspectors and OSHA inspections a contributing factor to that increase?

A 2012 study published in Science examined workplace safety inspections conducted by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) (a state plan state also historically low on inspectors). The study, “Randomized Government Safety Inspections Reduce Worker Injuries with no Detectable Job Loss,” concluded workplace inspections do reduce on-the-job injuries and their associated costs.

The study found that within high-hazard industries in California, inspected workplaces reduced their injury claims by 9.4 percent and saved 26 percent on workers' compensation costs in the 4 years following the inspection, compared to a similar set of uninspected workplaces. On average, inspected firms saved an estimated $355,000 in injury claims and compensation for paid lost work over that period.

Similarly, a review of research published in 2016 by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) found that government health and safety inspections that result in citations or penalties effectively motivate employers to make improvements that reduce work-related injuries. IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa, who led the review, acknowledged that no regulator has the resources to inspect all workplaces and to levy penalties for all violations, which makes additional efforts to drive awareness and reduce injuries and illnesses necessary as well.

To me, the lesson is that while we all like carrots and they can help improve safety performance, they can’t be the only tool in the box if we want to reduce workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities. Workplace inspections conducted by knowledgeable, well-trained inspectors reduce injury and workers’ compensations claims at the facilities that take the results seriously and learn from their safety lapses. Sometimes, sticks are necessary.

This is my last column for EHS Today. I am moving to a job in the private sector. I have truly loved the time I’ve spent with you, and I’m grateful that you allowed me into your lives and work world. Your advocacy for environment, health and safety inspires everything we do.

 

TAGS: Safety
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