Photo credit: DOL via Creative Commons 
Federal OSHA is responsible for safety and health enforcement at construction sites, like this one at National Harbor outside Washington, D.C. Since this photo was taken in 2016
during a safety event attended by Department of Labor officials, the number of OSHA inspectors has hit a historic low, reducing oversight and consequences for rule-breaking employers  

As the number of OSHA inspectors shrinks, enforcement action to safeguard workers is on the decline — at the same time that investigations into workplace deaths and injuries are rising. 

A new study of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data since 2016 suggests that record-keeping sleight of hand is masking a significant drop in major cases arising from inspections and the costly penalties that help deter employers from cutting corners.

On the surface, OSHA reports a similar number of inspections in recent years, says researcher Deborah Berkowitz, formerly a senior policy adviser at OSHA who directs the Worker Health and Safety Program at the National Employment Law Center in Washington, D.C.

“But digging just a bit beneath the surface, it becomes clear that this is a false narrative and that the agency is prioritizing quantity over quality, in an effort to disguise what is really going on,” Berkowitz writes.

What’s going on in large part is that the ranks of OSHA inspectors, officially called compliance officers, are at a historic low.  

“OSHA’s inspection resources are so limited that it would take the agency more than 150 years to visit every workplace under its jurisdiction just once,” Berkowitz said.

In 2010, according to the report, OSHA had 1,016 inspectors, virtually the same number it had three decades earlier. By 2016, the agency was down to 952 inspectors. By Jan. 1, 2019, it had dropped to 875.

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta told a House appropriations subcommittee April 3 that OSHA hired 76 new inspectors in 2018. But none were hired earlier in the Trump administration and the employees training now can’t conduct field investigations on their own for three years. Meanwhile, attrition continues.

“They are deep in the hole of hiring, and the vacancies are sitting there,” Berkowitz told the IBEW. “They have also changed how hiring is done, and that has slowed the process down.”

Overall, workplace fatalities fell slightly in 2017, the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But at 5,147 deaths, the tally was still the second-highest tally in nine years.

BLS numbers are always larger than OSHA’s, as they cover more industries and include work-related vehicle fatalities. Federal OSHA is responsible for most construction and general industry worksites in 29 states; others have state-based programs.

Last year’s BLS statistics won’t be published until December. But OSHA data for 2018 show that it investigated 921 fatalities and catastrophes, a classification for incidents that hospitalize three or more workers. That’s 10 percent more than in 2017 and the highest number in a decade.

Yet the agency is conducting fewer of the inspections crucial to preventing deaths, injuries and illnesses on the job.

Berkowitz’s report cites disparities between the 2016 and 2018 fiscal years, which run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 3:

  • Inspections to prevent combustible dust explosions dropped by nearly 20 percent, from 491 in 2016 to 396 in 2018.

  • Inspections to protect workers from dangerous heat plummeted from 187 to 105, even though 2018 was the fourth-hottest year on record in the United States.

  • Inspections to measure individual workers’ level of exposure to toxic chemicals decreased by 20 percent.

  • Investigations resulting in high penalties for employers were cut in half, from 131 to 66.

The way OSHA tracks inspections was changed near the end of the Obama administration to better reflect the time and resources invested in more complicated probes.

Each type of inspection is weighted and given an “enforcement unit” value. Combustible dust, for instance, counts as two units, heat as four units and high-penalty cases as eight units.

Many inspections, those deemed “quick” by OSHA, count as a single unit. Those climbed to 28,3222 in fiscal year 2018, an increase of 660.

But the tally can be deceptive. On a construction site, for instance, an inspector's visit may involve multiple subcontractors, each counting as separate inspection.

There’s already evidence that less oversight is putting workers at risk. For instance, Berkowitz cities tragedies at poultry plants, where multiple amputations and other severe injuries were reported in 2018 but never investigated.

Three months after an amputation at one plant, another worker suffered the same fate, but OSHA still didn’t investigate, she said.

That’s detrimental to workers far beyond a single factory or construction site, her report emphasizes, because deterring other employers from making the same mistakes is essential to OSHA’s mission.

Under pressure from big business and its allies in the Trump administration, the report states, OSHA has limited its public statements dramatically – going far beyond the drop in inspections themselves.

“In fact, OSHA has all but halted the issuance of press releases on enforcement actions,” Berkowitz writes, citing just 158 releases in 2018, one-third of the 470 issued in 2016.

International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said that federal OSHA is on a slippery slope under current leadership.

“Workers’ safety should never be a political issue,” he said. “For nearly 50 years, OSHA inspections have helped prevent employers from taking shortcuts when it comes to safety and health. You can’t put a price on the peace of mind that gives workers and their families.”