Does OSHA Understaffing Spell Bad News for Workplace Safety?

by Terry Bryant

In an effort to deliver on its campaign promise to “downsize” the federal government, is the Trump Administration making workplaces more dangerous for Americans?

The roster of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors fell 4% over the first nine months of 2017, according to information obtained by NBC News through a Freedom of Information Act request. These experienced industrial safety inspectors help employers and workers reduce on-the-job hazards and prevent injuries, illnesses, and deaths in the workplace; in so doing, they assure companies’ compliance with OSHA regulations.

At the end of the government’s fiscal year 2017 (October 2), 40 OSHA inspectors had left the agency due to normal retirement/attrition and have yet to be replaced. The total number of inspectors dipped below 1,000, according to NBC. This OSHA staff reduction appears to reinforce the president’s broader effort to slow the growth of the federal bureaucracy, which is leading to a noticeable increase in the number of federal civil service departures.

Though some (not all) conservatives see this reduction as progress toward more efficient government, some critics claim damage is being done at the regional level. The National Safety Council focuses on part of the NBC report surrounding OSHA’s southeast regional office. It lost 10 of the 40 “retiring” inspectors. The region includes Mississippi, where inspections were down 26% from January through August 2017, despite the fact that Mississippi is one of the nation’s leading states of reported worker injury and fatality rates, according to the National Employment Law Project.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is asking its members to serve as watchdogs for delays in OSHA’s response to accidents in the workplace. The union’s Safety and Health Director, David Mullen, asks that local chapters of the IBEW report any OSHA delays directly to him by email or phone. Mullen’s department will compile data, look for patterns and assess the effects of the vacancies.

Mullen says the OSHA vacancies are disturbing, but he adds that it’s too early to determine whether having fewer agency inspectors will result in more workers being injured or killed on the job. “Generally speaking, the fewer inspectors, the more you’re asking for trouble,” he said, noting that an investigator normally arrives at the accident site within one to three days after it happens.

Across the U.S., 21 states – and Puerto Rico – have their own OSHA-approved workplace safety and health programs to inspect private sector, state, and local government workplaces. Programs in five additional states and the Virgin Islands cover public sector workers only. The remaining 24 states rely completely on OSHA for inspections and enforcement.

Maybe the downsizing of OSHA will affect workplace safety sooner rather than later. NBC News was inspired to look into the matter in the first place when it received a letter sent by the Department of Labor to U. S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. She had requested data about the agency’s workforce. But the Labor Department’s response said that OSHA was “far too understaffed to fulfill its mandate of reducing workplace injuries.”

Maybe Congresswoman DeLaurio’s encounter is a clear case of res ipsa loquitur about the issue: “The thing speaks for itself.”

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