The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is down at least 40 workplace safety inspectors since early 2017, a troubling trend attributable to Donald Trump’s hiring freeze coupled with attrition. Budget cuts under consideration by the White House are likely to make matters even worse for worker safety.
Worksite inspections in southeastern states dropped by as much as 25 percent during the first eight months of the Trump administration, an NBC News investigation found, reporting that “critics warn that the staff departures have crippled small, regional OSHA offices that were already short-handed.”
IBEW Safety and Health Director David Mullen said the vacancies are disturbing, but it’s too early to determine if fewer OSHA inspectors are correlating to more workers being injured or killed on the job.
Mullen said many factors have to be evaluated before drawing conclusions about worksite accidents. Still, OSHA’s ability to investigate incidents and complaints, issue citations and enforce laws protecting workers is fundamental.
“Generally speaking, the fewer inspectors, the more you’re asking for trouble,” he said.
Determining the degree of trouble requires data, and that’s where IBEW locals can play a vital role. If OSHA isn’t swiftly responding to imminent danger complaints, Mullen and his staff want to hear about it.
“In my experience, depending on the severity of the complaint and OSHA’s availability in that part of the state, an investigator should arrive within one to three days,” said Dan Gardner, an IBEW international representative for safety and health.
Mullen asks that locals report any OSHA delays directly to him by email or phone, allowing his department to compile data, look for patterns and assess the effects of the vacancies.
IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson encouraged locals to share any relevant experiences. “Our members’ work is already hazardous. If OSHA’s failure to fill safety inspectors’ jobs is putting them at greater risk, we need facts to back that up,” he said. “We want to make the strongest possible case to stop the bleeding.”
NBC News began looking into OSHA’s downsizing when it obtained a letter the Labor Department sent to Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who’d requested data about the agency’s workforce. She told NBC that OSHA, “is far too understaffed to fulfill its mandate of reducing workplace injuries.”
Nationwide, 21 states and Puerto Rico run their own OSHA-approved workplace safety and health programs that cover the private sector as well as state and local government employees. Programs in five additional states and the Virgin Islands cover public sector workers only.
The remaining 24 states depend entirely on OSHA for inspections and enforcement. Among them is Mississippi, which has one of the nation’s highest worker injury and fatality rates and has seen the steepest drop in inspections. The former head of OSHA’s Jackson office said he’s especially concerned about risks to workers at the state’s smaller shipyards and construction companies.
“They really need close oversight because the ownership in those companies doesn't likely have a dedicated safety staff to make sure they're controlling their injuries and illness — they’re more likely to fall off the train," Clyde Payne told NBC.
Is OSHA taking longer to respond to your local’s safety complaints? If so, please contact IBEW Safety and Health Director David Mullen by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (202) 728-6040.