Workplace Safety and Health:

OSHA Can Better Respond to State-Run Programs Facing Challenges

GAO-13-320: Published: Apr 16, 2013. Publicly Released: Apr 18, 2013.

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Revae E. Moran
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moranr@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

State-run programs face several challenges that primarily relate to staffing, and include having constrained budgets, according to OSHA and state officials. States have difficulty filling vacant inspector positions, obtaining training for inspectors, and retaining qualified inspectors. Recruiting inspectors is difficult due to the shortage of qualified candidates, relatively low state salaries, and hiring freezes. Although OSHA has taken steps to make its courses more accessible to states, obtaining inspector training continues to be difficult. According to an agency official, OSHA's Training Institute faces several challenges in delivering training, including recruiting and retaining instructors, difficulty accommodating the demand for training, and limitations in taking some courses to the field due to the need for special equipment and facilities. These challenges are further exacerbated by states' lack of travel funds, which limit state inspectors' access to OSHA training. Retaining qualified inspectors is another challenge among states. Officials noted that, once state inspectors are trained, they often leave for higher paying positions in the private sector or federal government. GAO's survey of the 22 state-run programs that cover private and public sector workplaces showed that turnover was more prevalent among safety inspectors than health inspectors. Nearly half of these states reported that at least 40 percent of their safety inspectors had fewer than 5 years of service. In contrast, half of the states reported that at least 40 percent of their health inspectors had more than 10 years of service. These staffing challenges have limited the capacity of some state-run programs to meet their inspection goals.

OSHA has responded in a variety of ways to state-run programs with performance issues. These include closely monitoring and assisting such states, such as accompanying state staff during inspections and providing additional training on how to document inspections. OSHA has also drawn attention to poor state performance by communicating its concerns to the governor and other high-level state officials. In addition, OSHA has shared enforcement responsibilities with struggling states or, as a last resort, has resumed sole responsibility for federal enforcement when a state has voluntarily withdrawn its program. Although OSHA evaluates state-run programs during its annual reviews, GAO found that OSHA does not hold states accountable for addressing issues in a timely manner or establish time frames for when to resume federal enforcement when necessary. In addition, the current statutory framework may not permit OSHA to quickly resume concurrent enforcement authority with the state when a state is struggling with performance issues. As a result, a state's performance problems can continue for years. OSHA officials acknowledged the need for a mechanism that allows them to intervene more quickly in such circumstances. GAO also noted that OSHA does not compile lessons learned from its past experiences when it has resumed federal enforcement in a state. This prevents the agency from building on previous experiences in responding to future situations.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is generally responsible for setting and enforcing occupational safety and health standards in the nation's workplaces. OSHA carries out enforcement directly in 34 states and territories, while the remaining 22 have chosen to administer their own enforcement programs (referred to as state-run programs) under plans approved by OSHA. GAO was asked to review issues related to state-run programs. This report examines (1) what challenges states face in administering their safety and health programs, and (2) how OSHA responds to state-run programs with performance issues. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations and OSHA policies; conducted a survey of 22 state-run programs; and interviewed officials in OSHA's national office, all 10 OSHA regions, and from a nongeneralizable sample of 5 state-run programs; and interviewed labor and business associations and safety and health experts.

What GAO Recommends

Congress should consider giving OSHA a mechanism to expedite assistance to states experiencing challenges. In addition, OSHA should take a number of actions, including facilitating access to training; establishing time frames for resuming enforcement if states do not address challenges in a timely manner; and documenting lessons from its past experiences in resuming federal enforcement of state-run programs. In response, OSHA agreed with the recommendations and said it will explore ways to implement them.

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

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Congress should consider amending the Occupational Safety and Health Act to provide a mechanism for OSHA to more quickly intervene in staterun occupational safety and health programs with final approval status, as appropriate, to expedite federal OSHA assistance when necessary to ensure adequate enforcement of those programs that are experiencing challenges.

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions Congress has taken in response to this matter for congressional consideration, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better assist states in ensuring they have sound occupational safety and health programs, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to take steps to help address challenges that have posed long-standing risks to states with state-run occupational safety and health programs in training staff to administer their programs. These steps could include leveraging existing federal and state resources to develop more effective and efficient ways to access and deliver training, such as partnering with OSHA Training Institute Education Centers and systematically coordinating opportunities for newly hired state inspectors to obtain on-the-job training, such as by shadowing experienced inspectors from OSHA or other state-run programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has begun taking steps to address this recommendation. Regarding on-the-job training, OSHA plans to issue a memo in fiscal year 2013 directing the OSHA regional administrators to make on-the-job training opportunities available to state program compliance officers, upon request. We will update the recommendation status pending issuance of the memo. Regarding OSHA partnering with the OSHA Training Institute Education Centers, the agency stated that it continually looks for opportunities to partner with the state programs and with the Education Centers on special projects and initiatives.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to identify states with challenges that need to be addressed and require those states to develop timely plans for addressing their challenges, and if such plans are not developed, to establish time frames for when OSHA would resume sole or concurrent federal enforcement responsibility for the state-run program. This process should be tailored to the state's unique circumstances.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has begun taking steps to address this recommendation. OSHA plans to revise its State Plan Policies and Procedures Manual by the end of fiscal year 2013. According to OSHA, these revised procedures will establish mutually agreeable timeframes for state-run programs to complete any corrective actions. Corrective Action Plan milestones and timeframes will be monitored through the biennial Federal Annual Monitoring and Evaluation process. In addition, OSHA expects the revised State Plan Policies and Procedures Manual to include procedures for how and under what circumstances OSHA would initiate the process of modifying or withdrawing a state program when the state does not address significant corrective actions within acceptable timeframes. We will update the recommendation status pending issuance of the revised manual.

    Recommendation: To better position the agency to respond to states facing challenges, OSHA should document lessons learned from its experiences in assisting states with their enforcement responsibilities and resuming federal enforcement of state-run programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has begun taking steps to address this recommendation. OSHA indicated it will begin formally documenting lessons learned based on knowledge gained during the process of resuming concurrent jurisdiction in Hawaii. The agency added that lessons learned in Hawaii, as well as future interventions will also inform the policies established in the State Plan Policies and Procedures Manual chapter on modifying or withdrawing a state program. We will update the recommendation status pending issuance of the revised manual.

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