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April 24, 2013
Report: State safety agencies fall short
By Emily Scace, Senior Editor, Safety

A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that some state-run occupational safety and health programs have failed to meet minimum workplace safety inspection goals. The report details the challenges faced by many state-run programs and recommends actions for federal OSHA to take to mitigate these issues. Twenty-one states and Puerto Rico currently run their own state safety and health programs for private employers, and an additional four states have state-run programs for public sector workers only.

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Constrained budgets in many states make meeting inspection goals difficult, according to the report. State funding issues in some cases have resulted in hiring freezes, furloughs, and salary reductions, all of which cause staffing shortages and high turnover. The result is state safety agencies that lack enough safety and health inspectors to meet their inspection goals; moreover, the remaining inspectors often possess less experience and fewer qualifications. With such high turnover, state safety agencies are forced to spend a significant portion of their budgets on mandatory introductory training for new inspectors, leaving less money available for advanced training and other important initiatives.

These staffing difficulties have had real consequences for workplace safety. For example, in Nevada, a run of 25 construction fatalities over an 18-month period prompted a 2009 Education and Labor Committee hearing. Nevada OSHA promised to seek salary increases to reduce the high turnover rate that led to inadequately trained construction inspectors, but in 2010 and 2011, Nevada faced a hiring freeze, elimination of state employee pay increases, and wage reductions for all state employees. The state could conduct only 59 percent of its goal number of inspections in 2011 as a result.

The GAO report recommended that Congress pass a law to give federal OSHA more authority to quickly step in and enforce safety and health standards when state programs fall short. Such a provision is included in the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which is currently being considered in congressional committee. However, the report also highlighted the benefits of well-run state safety programs, including familiarity with local working conditions, innovative approaches not available at the federal level, and cost-effectiveness for both state and federal governments.

Other recommendations for aiding state-run programs included leveraging existing federal and state resources to help with training issues and establishing time frames for resuming federal enforcement when state agencies fail to resolve challenges. The report states, “OSHA agreed with the recommendations and said it will explore ways to implement them.”

The GAO report was based on interviews with OSHA officials at the state and federal levels and surveys of state officials in states that administer their own safety and health agencies.

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