Two factors are reducing the number of OSHA inspections conducted in the last couple of years, according to a new report.
A data brief from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) says under the Trump administration, OSHA enforcement activity has declined from 2016 to 2018.
The first reason for fewer inspections is easy to explain: There are fewer OSHA inspectors. As of January 2018, federal OSHA had 764 inspectors, down from 814 in January 2017 – a net loss of 50, or 6% of inspectors.
The second reason has to do with the way federal OSHA counts inspections. This changed in 2016. Before that, an inspection was an inspection no matter how complicated or how long it took.
But in FY 2016, OSHA started using “enforcement units” to track its inspections. The system assigns values (enforcement units) to each type of inspection. The more time-consuming and complex, the higher the enforcement unit count.
OSHA made the change to encourage inspectors to pursue more complex and time-consuming cases.
For FY 2016 (Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016) OSHA reported 42,900 enforcement units. In FY 2017, that dropped to 41,829, a decrease of 2.5%.
In the first five months of FY 2018, enforcement units declined 1,163, or another 7%.
The NELP says cutting back on OSHA enforcement activity puts workers’ lives at risk and undercuts businesses that prioritize worker safety.
One impact fewer inspectors and inspections has on OSHA is which facilities are targeted by the agency.
Speaking at the American Association of Safety Professionals’ Safety 2018 conference in San Antonio, attorney Thomas Metzger with Littler Mendelson said the focus on more complex inspections means facilities that are part of larger companies are now more likely to get an OSHA visit.
Metzger says one place where OSHA has become more aggressive is figuring out if a violation can be categorized as repeat. He says the agency, using its own database, is searching a company’s history to see if a fine can be called repeat. OSHA now looks back five years for repeat violations, and if you’re a multi-site employer, the violation doesn’t have to be at the same location.
Another pattern that Metzger sees is OSHA’s tendency to seek settlements which include whole-company abatements of hazards, not just at the facility where the violation occurred.
Metzger’s overall message: Sure, the number of federal OSHA inspectors has declined, but the agency is still aggressively pursuing enforcement where it can.