Obtaining reliable data about workplace injuries is hindering OSHA’s efforts to determine how best to use its resources to help protect U.S. workers’ health and safety, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DoL) Office of Inspector General. This challenge is particularly acute in high-risk industries like forestry, fishing, agriculture, mining and construction.
The report, titled “Top Management and Performance Challenges Facing the U.S. Department of Labor,” details challenges faced by all arms of the DoL, of which OSHA is a part.
The situation, the DoL writes, is exacerbated by underreporting of injuries by employers. Without reliable data regarding workplace injuries, OSHA “lacks the information needed to effectively focus inspection and compliance efforts on the most hazardous workplaces.”
One former OSHA official, however, believes the agency already receives more than enough data to prioritize its actions.
“Most employers over-report, not under-report. They put stuff down because they are scared to death,” contends James Stanley, who spent 25 years working for OSHA, including a time as the Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Labor. “[OSHA gets] thousands of reports in. What do you think they do with them? They make [employers] send the report in, and then they decide if they’re going to investigate.”
A secondary real problem around reporting, Stanley adds, is the OSHA reporting mechanism itself. “[OSHA] makes it so complicated to record injuries and illnesses that the American business spends literally thousands of hours trying to figure out what they want. There’s no clear guidance.”
The report also specifically mentions the DoL’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) as being challenged by the underreporting, just as OHSA is. MSHA is also challenged to determine the reasons for an increase in black lung cases in Appalachian coal mining states, which are at a 25-year high, and to develop strategies for addressing it, the report states. Reducing the number of powered haulage accidents, which accounted for eight percent of all injuries and 50 percent of all fatalities in 2017, is identified as another difficulty facing MSHA.
A second chief challenge for OSHA, according to the report, involves verifying abatements of construction hazards. Abatement, says OSHA, refers to the correction of a hazard that led to a citation. Successful abatement involves a five-step process: fixing the hazard; certifying that you’ve fixed the hazard; notifying your employees and their representatives that you have fixed the hazard; sending document(s) to OSHA saying that you have abated the hazard; and tagging any cited movable equipment with a warning tag or a copy of the citation.
“The agency closed many citations for safety violations because the construction project ended, not because employers corrected the cited hazards,” the DoL wrote. “As a result, OSHA received no assurances employers would use improved safety and health practices at subsequent construction sites.”
In Stanley’s view, abatement is a challenge to OSHA “only if they don’t do their job like going out and inspecting.” Abatement, he explains, really only applies to small construction contractors, not the large companies. “The big contractors understand their responsibilities and they go in and correct their issue and they go on and make sure it doesn’t occur again. This only really applies to the small guys, the guys that are trying to get away with something.”
Problem is, Stanley adds, OSHA rarely goes after the smaller players. “They should be concentrating on the worst employers, and they know where they are. Every single residential contractor is a worst employer because they are hiring untrained and unsophisticated workers in most cases.”
Because OSHA does not concentrate on such employers, Stanley says, the abatement issue is really one of the agency’s own making. “The real screwups are these little guys digging laterals, trenching, excavating without shoring and without laying it back. Why wouldn’t they be concentrating on those people? That’s where you’re going to save lives.”
To make progress against its challenges, the report states that OSHA needs to “complete its initiatives to improve employer reporting of severe injuries and illnesses, and enhance staff training on abatement verification, especially of smaller and transient construction employers.” The agency also needs to complete the development of its evaluation and analysis program.
MSHA needs to identify methods for improving mine operators’ reporting of accidents, injuries, and illnesses, and “continue its efforts to address the number of powered haulage accidents by conducting compliance and technical assistance visits, enhancing training, and increasing and sharing its knowledge of available technology.”