OSHA Inspections Fall to 20-Year Low in Fiscal 2016

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By Bruce Rolfsen

OSHA inspections dropped to the lowest level in two decades during the final full fiscal year of the Obama administration, a Bloomberg BNA analysis of agency enforcement numbers found.

In fiscal year 2016, ending Sept. 30, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted 31,948 inspections. That’s down 11 percent from the previous year, OSHA numbers show. The last time OSHA conducted fewer inspections was fiscal 1996 during the Clinton administration when the agency made 24,024 inspections.

The fall marked the fourth consecutive year that OSHA inspections fell. From fiscal 2010 through 2012, the agency averaged about 40,850 inspections annually.

OSHA declined a Bloomberg BNA interview request to discuss why fewer inspections were conducted. In a written response, the agency said, “A drop in inspection resources correlates to the drop in inspection numbers.”

The less frequent inspections coincide with a stagnating budget and staff cuts at OSHA, appropriations documents show.

The agency’s budget during the Obama administration peaked in 2012 at $565.9 million, funding 2,305 positions. But by 2016, the allocation was down to $552.8 million with 2,174 positions approved.

Enforcement Threat

In June 2010, newly confirmed OSHA administrator David Michaels said inspections and penalties were useful deterrents.

“The threat of enforcement and penalties reminds all employers to do the right thing for their workers,” Michaels told an American Society of Safety Engineers conference. “It deters them from any temptation to defer maintenance or cut corners on worker training and safety procedures.”

Much of the 2016 reduction was from 1,928 fewer construction inspections and 245 less oil/gas/mining industry inspections than in fiscal 2015.

OSHA partially made up for less inspections by more frequently finding alleged violations. In 2016, 74 percent of inspections found at least one violation, while the rate for 2015 was 69 percent.

Although the frequency of finding violations increased, the number of violations declined to a 20-year low in 2016. OSHA issued citations for 58,549 violations, down 9 percent from 2015. The previous low mark was in fiscal 1996 at 55,093 violations.

OSHA expects the 2016 violation numbers to increase slightly because inspectors following an inspection have up to six months to issue citations.

More Appeals

However, less inspections didn’t lead to a drop in citation appeals made to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

According to a commission report, 2,183 inspection cases were appealed in 2016 to the panel—19 more cases than in 2015.

When compared to the number of inspections where OSHA issued citations, the rate of contested cases was 9.2 percent. For 2015 the rate was 8.7 percent.

Expanding Injury, Complaint Inspections

The effect of OSHA’s 2015 injury reporting policy requiring employers to notify OSHA of hospitalizations, amputations and eye losses within 24 hours was seen in the changing reasons for inspections.

Before 2015, most OSHA inspections were “programmed” inspections based on industries that were considered high hazard or other factors such as inclusion in an inspection emphasis program.

In 2016, 60 percent of inspections were unprogrammed. Two years before, they were 47 percent.

The dominance of programmed inspections changed in 2015 when OSHA began responding to thousands of injury and hospitalization reports. For the first time, “unprogrammed” inspections responding to the reports, complaints and referrals from other agencies surpassed planned inspections.

Another effect of reporting rule change is the large number of employers cited for allegedly not following the regulation’s requirements (29 C.F.R. 1904.39).

In 2016, OSHA issued 810 other-than-serious violations for employers not following the rule, producing $1.23 million in proposed fines. OSHA allows inspectors to seek fines as high as $7,000 for each violation.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The review commission's 2016 performance report is available at http://src.bna.com/kHv.

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