Despite assurances from Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta that he will boost the number of OSHA compliance officers this fiscal year, new data shows the number of inspectors has declined.
According to statistics that POLITICO obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the number of compliance safety and health officers tasked with conducting workplace inspections at the agency had fallen in April to 870. That’s down from the 875 safety inspectors that OSHA reported in January (in response to a FOIA request from the left-leaning National Employment Law Project).
In addition, data provided to POLITICO from OSHA reveals that since January the agency has lost two area directors responsible for training and supervising safety and health inspectors.
During the same month that OSHA recorded the 7-person decline, Acosta testified before a House appropriations panel that OSHA “expects to have a significant increase in inspectors in FY 2019.” The fiscal year runs from Oct 1 through September 30.
At that April hearing, Acosta noted that OSHA hired 76 new inspectors in FY 2018.
“These numbers are stunning,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA policy adviser now with NELP. “The agency now has the lowest number of inspectors in its entire history—it will now take over 160 years for the agency to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction just once. This does not bode well for workers.”
The number of OSHA inspectors fluctuated throughout the Obama administration, rising to 1,059 inspectors from 2009 to 2011, then declining to 943 from 2011 to 2015, then rising again in 2016 to 952 inspectors.
Democrats and safety advocates blame the decline under Trump on retirements and on the federal hiring freeze ordered in early 2017
“This is a sign of erosion in OSHA’s ability to inspect workplaces,” Peg Seminario, director of health and safety at the AFL-CIO, told POLITICO. “Acosta has committed to strong enforcement, but their ability to do so is being hobbled and crippled by losing experienced staff.”
In total, OSHA’s compliance safety and health officers reached 949 in April, but that figure also includes 79 area directors, who do not conduct workplace inspections. According to January numbers obtained by advocates, the agency had 81 area directors on board at the time.
The Labor Department’s budget request for OSHA for fiscal year 2020 included more than $3.7 million to hire 30 additional compliance officers
Asked to comment on the decline in safety inspectors, a DOL spokesperson said that OSHA “has taken several steps to increase its federal enforcement staffing levels.” In 2017, the spokesperson said, Acosta granted OSHA approval to fill all its funded inspector positions.
“OSHA has also begun recruiting for a larger number of positions than available vacancies,” the spokesperson said, “to ensure there is a continuous pool of [compliance safety health officer] applicants for selection when future vacancies occur.”
Despite the decline in inspectors, the number of OSHA inspections rose in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 to above 32,000. But a March NELP report said that in both fiscal years the agency cut back on the number of more complex, resource-intensive, and “high-impact” safety and health inspections.
In making this calculation, NELP used the same metric created by OSHA under President Barack Obama. In 2016, OSHA stopped measuring its performance by the number of total inspections and instead started counting by weighted “enforcement units” to better assess the quantity of enforcement activity. Then-OSHA chief David Michaels concluded that a raw inspection count was misleading because one-day inspections were equated with more complicated five-month inspections.
According to NELP’s March report, in FY 2018 OSHA enforcement dropped by 352 enforcement units, to 41,478.
This article was originally published at Politico on June 17, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.
Rainey holds a bachelor’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
She was born and raised on the eastern shore of Maryland and grew up 30 minutes from the beach. She loves to camp, hike and be by the water whenever she can.