Federal agencies Inspections

Congressman asks Acosta about lagging enforcement, inspector attrition at OSHA

Ellison and Acosta

Washington — A leading House Democrat has sent a letter to Secretary of Labor R. Alexander Acosta regarding OSHA’s reported decline in enforcement activities and its current inspector staffing level, among other subjects.

In the letter, dated July 10, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) poses 11 sets of questions to Acosta. “As you know, over 5,000 people died from workplace injuries in 2016,” Ellison, who serves as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, writes. “This figure represents an alarming 7 percent increase from 2015 and is the highest since 2008. Not only does workplace death and injury cause emotional and financial harm to working families, it harms the American economy.”

With that increase in mind, Ellison asks why the number of OSHA inspectors has decreased to 764 in January 2018 from 814 in January 2017, citing AFL-CIO data. He also inquires why the number of enforcement units – a measure that places values on certain types of inspections to gauge enforcement activity – decreased by 1,071 from fiscal year 2016 to FY 2017. Ellison also points out that in the first five months of FY 2018, enforcement units have decreased by another 1,163, according to a National Employment Law Project data brief issued June 11.

In an email to Safety+Health, a Department of Labor spokesperson said “the number of inspections conducted in 2017 [32,396] increased year over year for the first time in five years despite OSHA’s suspension of enforcement activities to provide more compliance assistance and facilitate the provision of personal protective equipment during the hurricane recovery in areas affected by natural disasters.”

In its congressional budget justification for FY 2019, OSHA set a goal of 30,840 inspections – 1,556 fewer than in FY 2017 (the most recent data available) – and stated that it would focus on “the highest-impact and most complex inspections at the highest-risk workplaces.” The agency also stated it will continue implementing its new weighting system to analyze enforcement and “other mission-critical field activities.” The OSHA Enforcement Weighting System is slated to go into full effect by Oct. 1.

During a House Appropriations Committee hearing on March 6, Acosta said OSHA could hire as many as 65 new inspectors to replace the 40 or so the agency lost through attrition since January 2017.

Former OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab, however, said via Twitter that hiring inspectors is a long process. “Not only the slow federal hiring process, but medical exams,” Barab tweeted. “Then three years of training before they’re fully qualified.”

In his letter, Ellison also asks why “enforcement penalties are not being enforced to anywhere near their intended extent” despite an increase in the amount of money OSHA can fine violators. On June 30, 2016, the agency announced that its maximum penalty for serious violations was increasing to $12,471 from $7,000, and that fines for willful or repeated violations were increasing to $124,709 from $70,000.

Ellison writes that the average penalty for serious violators was $3,553 in FY 2017, and “worker death cases have a median penalty of $7,500 with minimal criminal prosecution,” citing AFL-CIO data.

The congressman asks Acosta to submit answers to the questions by July 24.

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