Workplace Safety and Health:

Multiple Challenges Lengthen OSHA's Standard Setting

GAO-12-330: Published: Apr 2, 2012. Publicly Released: Apr 19, 2012.

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What GAO Found

Between 1981 and 2010, the time it took the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop and issue safety and health standards ranged widely, from 15 months to 19 years, and averaged more than 7 years. Experts and agency officials cited increased procedural requirements, shifting priorities, and a rigorous standard of judicial review as contributing to lengthy time frames for developing and issuing standards. For example, they said that a shift in OSHA’s priorities toward one standard took attention away from several other standards that previously had been a priority.

In addition to using the typical standard-setting process, OSHA can address urgent hazards by issuing emergency temporary standards, directing additional attention to enforcing relevant existing standards, and educating employers and workers about hazards. However, OSHA has not issued an emergency temporary standard since 1983 because it has found it difficult to compile the evidence necessary to meet the statutory requirements. Instead, OSHA focuses on enforcement and education when workers face urgent hazards. For example, OSHA can enforce the general requirement of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) that employers provide a workplace free from recognized hazards, as it did in 2009 when it cited a major retail employer after one of its workers was crushed to death by uncontrolled holiday crowds. To educate employers and workers, OSHA coordinates and funds on-site consultations and publishes information on matters as diverse as safe lifting techniques for nursing home workers and exposure to diacetyl, a flavoring ingredient used in microwave popcorn linked to lung disease among factory workers.

Experiences of other federal agencies that regulate public or worker health hazards offer limited insight into the challenges OSHA faces in setting standards. For example, officials with the Environmental Protection Agency noted that certain Clean Air Act requirements to set and regularly review standards for specified air pollutants have facilitated that agency’s standard-setting efforts. In contrast, the OSH Act does not require OSHA to periodically review and update its standards. Officials with the Mine Safety and Health Administration noted that their standard-setting process benefits from both the in-house knowledge of its inspectors, who inspect every mine at least twice yearly, and a dedicated mine safety research group within the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a federal research agency that makes recommendations on occupational safety and health. OSHA must rely on time-consuming site visits for hazards information and has not consistently coordinated with NIOSH to engage that agency’s expertise on occupational hazards.

Experts and agency officials identified several ideas that could improve OSHA’s standard-setting process. While some of the changes, such as improving coordination with other agencies to leverage expertise, are within OSHA’s authority, others call for significant procedural changes that would require amending existing laws. For example, some experts recommended a statutory change that would allow OSHA to revise a group of outdated health standards at the same time, using industry consensus standards as support rather than having to analyze each hazard individually.

Why GAO Did This Study

Occupational safety and health standards are designed to help protect about 130 million public and private sector workers from hazards at more than 8 million U.S. worksites. Questions exist concerning how long it takes OSHA to issue its standards. GAO was asked to examine: (1) the time OSHA takes to develop and issue safety and health standards and the key factors that affect these time frames, (2) alternatives to the typical standard-setting process available for OSHA to address urgent hazards (3) whether other regulatory agencies’ rulemaking offers insight into OSHA’s challenges with setting standards, and (4) ideas from occupational safety and health experts and agency officials for improving OSHA’s process. GAO analyzed standards issued by OSHA between 1981 and 2010, interviewed subject matter experts and agency officials at OSHA and two similar federal regulatory agencies and offices, and reviewed the standard-setting process at OSHA and the comparison agencies and offices.

What GAO Recommends

To streamline OSHA standards development, GAO recommends that OSHA and NIOSH more consistently collaborate on researching occupational hazards, so that OSHA can more effectively leverage NIOSH expertise in determining the needs for new standards and developing them. Both agencies agreed with the recommendation.

For more information, contact Revae Moran at (202) 512-7215 or moranr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) agreed with this recommendation. OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) developed a Memorandum of Understanding to allow data sharing from NIOSH's blood lead and OSHA's inspection databases. GAO believes this is a significant accomplishment, however, the MOU focuses on only one workplace hazard (blood lead) rather than addressing collaboration in a more systematic way on all workplace hazards.

    Recommendation: To enhance collaboration and streamline the development of OSHA's occupational safety and health standards, the Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should instruct the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health and the Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to develop a more formal means of collaboration between the two agencies. Specifically, the two agencies should establish a more consistent and sustained relationship through a formal agreement, such as a Memorandum of Understanding, allowing OSHA to better leverage NIOSH's capacity as a primary research institution when building the scientific record required for standard setting.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) agreed with this recommendation. NIOSH and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)developed a Memorandum of Understanding to allow data sharing from NIOSH's blood lead and OSHA's inspection databases. GAO believes this is a significant accomplishment, however, the MOU focuses on only one workplace hazard (blood lead) rather than addressing collaboration in a more systematic way on all workplace hazards.

    Recommendation: To enhance collaboration and streamline the development of OSHA's occupational safety and health standards, the Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should instruct the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health and the Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to develop a more formal means of collaboration between the two agencies. Specifically, the two agencies should establish a more consistent and sustained relationship through a formal agreement, such as a Memorandum of Understanding, allowing OSHA to better leverage NIOSH's capacity as a primary research institution when building the scientific record required for standard setting.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

 

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