How much your local OSHA inspector knows about occupational safety and health may depend mostly on where you’re located.
That’s one conclusion from a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, OSHA Can Better Respond to State-Run Programs Facing Challenges.
A total of 21 states and Puerto Rico have their own OSHAs that inspect private businesses. In five more states and the Virgin Islands, state inspectors focus only on public (government) organizations. For private industry in the rest of the country, federal OSHA does the job.
Nearly half of the states with their own OSHAs report at least 40% of their safety inspectors have less than five years of experience. Health inspectors in most of the same states had more experience than their safety counterparts.
Here are the states in which at least half of safety and/or health inspectors had less than five years of experience:
- Alaska: 70% safety and health
- Arizona: 55% safety
- Hawaii: 80% health
- Nevada: 54% safety
- South Carolina: 50% safety, 75% health
- Utah: 56% safety, and
- Wyoming: 67% safety and health.
On the other hand, here are states with more experienced inspectors, including the percentage with less than five years of experience:
- California: 28% safety, 0% health
- New Mexico: 17% safety, 0% health
- Oregon: 29% safety, 8% health
- Puerto Rico: 4% safety, 0% health, and
- Vermont: 16% safety, 0% health.
Federal OSHA inspectors are, on average, more experienced than their state counterparts.
Why? The states tend to pay less. Their inspectors often leave their jobs after they get some experience to work either at federal OSHA or in a related field.
It’s no surprise that salaries for these inspectors aren’t going up. State governments are financially strapped. Even though they get matching funds from federal OSHA for their programs, the problem is coming up with money from the state in the first place.
Staffing isn’t the only problem the GAO points out at state OSHAs. The agencies also have difficulty obtaining training for inspectors.
So if state OSHA inspectors have trouble getting training and are less experienced than their federal counterparts, are they finding all the hazards when they conduct inspections?
It’s a good question. State plans cover 40% of all workers. But the state agencies actually perform more inspections: 52,000 per year compared to 40,000 for federal OSHA.
State inspectors also issue more violations. But, for whatever reason, state fines cost less and are categorized as less severe. Federal inspectors find a greater percentage of inspections to be categorized as serious. The average cost to a business for a serious fine in 2011 was $2,133 for federal OSHA but just $963 for the equivalent state agencies.
The problems involving some state OSHAs have been well documented. The situation involving Nevada OSHA prompted federal OSHA to concentrate more on the performance of state programs.
However, at this time, only one state OSHA program is in danger of folding and being taken over by the feds in the next five years: Hawaii’s. Six federal OSHA staffers have been helping Hawaii OSHA get its program back on track.