Government Accounting Office
This graphic from the GAO report illustrates the difference between federal OSHA and staterun enforcement programs in terms of total inspections fines and violations

Is OSHA Is Doing Enough to Monitor its Own Enforcement Efforts?

March 6, 2013
The Government Accounting Office in its report, “Further Steps by OSHA Would Enhance Monitoring of Enforcement and Effectiveness,” finds OSHA provides more frequent monitoring and more consistent guidance for its federal enforcement activities than for state enforcement activities, increasing the risk of injury or death for employees.

OSHA is responsible for overseeing occupational safety and health for more than 130 million workers. In about half the states, OSHA sets and enforces compliance with safety and health standards. The remaining states set and enforce their own standards under OSHA-approved plans. In fiscal year 2010, OSHA strengthened its monitoring of state-run programs following a dozen worker deaths between 2006 and 2008 on construction sites in Nevada, which is a state-run program. Both Congress and OSHA looked into Nevada’s program and found deficiencies. The examination into Nevada’s enforcement raised questions about how closely OSHA monitors its own enforcement efforts.

According to the new report from the Government Accounting Office (GAO), which examines OSHA’s efforts to monitor its own enforcement activities, OSHA regional officials review performance reports on federal activities at least every other week but review reports on state-run program activities quarterly. In addition, OSHA’s guidance for audits of its regional and area offices is more consistent than the guidance for its audits of state-run programs.

GAO reviewed OSHA’s monitoring policies and procedures and relevant federal laws and regulations; analyzed federal and state audits; visited three OSHA regional offices; and interviewed OSHA officials and other experts in order to produce “Further Steps by OSHA Would Enhance Monitoring of Enforcement and Effectiveness.”

What GAO Found

Guidance for audits of its offices requires that OSHA regional offices conduct a comprehensive audit with on-site review of inspection case files at least once every 4 years and other audits focused on more specific activities in all other years. In contrast, GAO found, guidance for regional office audits of state-run programs changes from year to year and does not include a regular schedule for comprehensive audits with on-site case file reviews.

While the frequency of OSHA’s monitoring of state-run programs is necessarily different because of the independent enforcement authority of participating states, said the GAO report, OSHA’s lack of consistent guidance for audits of these state-run programs may allow enforcement deficiencies to go undetected, increasing the risk of worker injuries, illnesses or death.

In addition, there is little participation by OSHA’s national office in comprehensive audits of its regional offices despite a 2010 directive to do so. As a result, OSHA cannot ensure that the results of regional audits are impartial.

OSHA is taking steps to better assess the effectiveness of both its federal enforcement efforts and of state enforcement efforts, but GAO said it often is not clear how these steps will help OSHA demonstrate what efforts result in better outcomes for workers, such as reduced worker injuries, illnesses and fatalities. OSHA recently revised some of the measures it uses to assess state-run programs by adding acceptable ranges of performance. However, the revised measures still largely focus on outputs – such as the average number of violations per inspection – rather than outcomes.

OSHA also is conducting studies to examine the results of specific enforcement activities, including one designed, in part, to evaluate the effect of OSHA providing additional educational support to employers. While tracking progress in meeting performance goals – such as the annual number of conducted inspections – is useful, the lack of focus on outcomes makes it difficult for OSHA to determine which specific enforcement activities are most effective or to convince states to implement changes designed to improve outcomes, according to GAO. For example, only two state-run programs raised their penalty amounts in fiscal year 2011 as recommended by OSHA; state-run program representatives stated that OSHA lacked evidence to show that higher penalties are more effective in deterring future employer violations.

According to GAO, OSHA does not use data already in hand to assess the effectiveness of federal and state enforcement efforts. For example, OSHA does not use data from its annual audits of its regional and area offices or of state-run programs to inform its planning or share information across regions.

Additionally, OSHA annually collects data on activities conducted under emphasis programs that focus on national safety and health issues, but it does not evaluate these data to determine whether these programs are responsible for desired outcomes.

What GAO Recommends

In order to improve OSHA's assessments of its effectiveness and its monitoring of federal and state enforcement efforts, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Labor direct the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health to:

  1. Consistently incorporate outcomes in its assessments of enforcement activities;  
  2. Annually analyze the results of its MAP and FAME audits to identify and address systemic problems and leading practices;  
  3. Ensure that OSHA national staff participate in regional office comprehensive audits to enhance independence in accordance with OSHA’s MAP 2010 directive; and 
  4. Provide consistent guidance for scheduling state EFAME audits to ensure that they are conducted on a regular basis and include mandatory on-site case file reviews.

OSHA generally agreed with the recommendations but expressed concern about overuse of outcomes to assess effectiveness. GAO said it continues to believe the recommendations it made in the report are valid.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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