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The reduction in the number of inspectors hampers OSHA operations



Pandemic workplace safety duties combined with a steady decline in the number of occupational safety inspectors since 2014 have challenged the agency, legal experts say.

“It’s objectively true that OSHA has been shrinking, and staffing has been shrinking year-over-year for a while — really going back to the (2013) sequestration and some government shutdowns under the Obama administration,” said Eric Conn, Washington-based founding partner of Conn Maciel Carey LLP.

Mr. Conn referred to a Dec. 13 report by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General on the department’s top management and performance challenges that found the reduction in inspectors from a peak of 860 in 201

4 to 750 in 2021 had made it difficult for OSHA to protect workers at an estimated 8 million jobs.

The annual report followed one in November in which the OIG said OSHA “did not adequately protect workers from the health risks of Covid-19” during the pandemic.

Jessica E. Martinez, Los Angeles-based co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said there is “an urgent need for OSHA to add more inspectors, more whistleblower investigators and more staff across the agency to effectively enforce our safety laws and prevent unnecessary injury, illness and death.”

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday released its annual Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, finding “that a worker dies every 101 minutes from a preventable incident on the job,” she said. “So, every day of delay in getting more OSHA inspectors on the job to identify and reduce workplace hazards could cost an additional 14 lives.”

The OIG report also found that OSHA has been challenged

protect workers who report potential workplace safety violations by failing, in some cases, to complete subsequent whistleblower investigations within the statutory requirement of 30, 60 or 90 days.

“The pandemic caused a significant increase in the number of whistleblower reports received by OSHA, while the number of full-time (FTE) employees, including inspectors in OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program, decreased,” the report states. In the first months of the pandemic, from February to May 2020, the whistleblower program received 4,101 complaints, a 30% increase from the previous year, according to the report.

OSHA did not respond to requests for comment.

The latest report noted that it can take up to five years for an inspector to be fully trained and that more money in the agency’s budget this year did not correct the problem.

“Although OSHA’s budget request included the hiring of 155 new inspectors in fiscal year 2022, the current shortage of available inspectors and the time lag for an inspector to become fully trained could lead to fewer inspections, reduced enforcement of high-risk industries, and ultimately, greater risk of injuries or impaired health of workers,” the report states.

“There has been a large brain drain in recent years caused by the retirement of many experienced inspectors,” Melissa Peters, a Walnut Creek, Calif.-based shareholder with Littler Mendelson PC, wrote in an email. “Certified safety and health officers who were considering early retirement were likely forced to do so after the pandemic. I imagine the pressure on inspectors since 2020 … has been enormous.”

“Like any profession, it takes time for an inspector to know what they are doing,” Peters wrote. “Even OSHA offices that have hired inspectors likely won’t see relief for years. The increase in employee awareness of workplace safety since the pandemic is challenging. An increase in complaints means more site inspections. An inspector can only accomplish so much in a day .”

And inexperienced inspectors can introduce more problems for employers facing inspections, according to Adam Young, Chicago-based partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP.

“For employers, OSHA’s staffing issues and the use of new supervisors often mean that the supervisor performing the inspection lacks industry knowledge and is less familiar with the relevant requirements,” he said.

“They may not be familiar with OSHA’s Field Operations Manual or other standard OSHA procedures yet,” he said. “This can lead to attempts to expand inspections for which OSHA has no legal basis and inappropriate questions during employee interviews.”


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