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Will state OSHA programs replace federal OSHA?

August 13, 2015

More states now operate their own occupational safety and health program than those that don’t. Are State Plans the future of workplace safety oversight?

On Aug. 5, Maine became the 26th State Plan, in addition to two territories that have their own OSH program. During a House committee hearing six years ago, assistant OSHA administrator Jordan Barab listed several advantages states have over federal OSHA in operating their own plan:

  • Coverage of state and local employees, who are not covered by federal OSHA
  • More familiarity with the mix of industries and workplaces in their jurisdiction
  • More flexibility in responding to workplace hazards
  • Increased likelihood of conducting more inspections and reaching more workplaces
  • Freedom to innovate enforcement and standard-setting approaches

Could we see more and more states opt to run their own program? It’s possible, but disadvantages exist too.

For example, no more than half of a state agency’s money comes from the federal government. So states on a tight budget may not want to invest heavily in an area in which the federal government already picks up the check. It should be noted that the last two approved State Plan states (Illinois and Maine) only cover public-sector workers; the private sector – which would encompass far more workers – remains under federal jurisdiction.

Additionally, many state programs that do rely heavily on federal funding dollars to operate their programs are more likely to be affected by federal budget cuts or shutdowns. This could lead to the program being less successful at protecting workers.

Even if all 50 states decide to run their own OSHA program for both private and public workers, federal OSHA isn’t going anywhere.

States choosing to operate their own plan must seek approval from federal OSHA in a process that could take years. Plus, these programs are still answerable to federal OSHA – they must be “at least as effective” as federal OSHA. It’s a fairly ambiguous requirement, but the federal agency does have the power to act on state agencies it feels aren’t living up to that standard.

Ultimately, it comes down to what the people in the remaining 24 states want. Do they want more of a say in how enforcement and compliance assistance programs are run, and do they want to extend workplace safety and health protections to state and local employees?

I’m interested in learning what you think. What are your experiences with State Plan states and federal OSHA? Do you want more states to operate their own OSHA programs, or do you want to leave this control in the hands of the federal government? Let me know in the comments below.

The opinions expressed in "On Safety" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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