Product Safety Laboratories:

OSHA's Accreditation Process Needs Reexamination

GAO-13-88: Published: Dec 11, 2012. Publicly Released: Dec 11, 2012.

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Revae E. Moran
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What GAO Found

The Department of Labor's (Labor) Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) process for accrediting Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories (NRTL) is lengthy due to the scope of staff members' responsibilities and unclear application procedures for accreditation. Among the 13 recently approved applications, OSHA took between 1 and 5 years to make accreditation decisions. All of these applications took much longer to approve than OSHA's desired time frames, and in some cases, years longer. In addition, 12 of the 29 applications that were awaiting final decisions by OSHA as of June 2012 had been under review longer than the 5-year period for which the accreditation decision would be valid. This lengthy process has potentially negative economic consequences for laboratories and requires OSHA staff to divert their time from other oversight activities. Two key factors led to the long time frames:

  • Imbalance between staffing levels and scope of responsibilities: The way that OSHA has designed the NRTL program requires its four staff members to balance many wide-ranging responsibilities. These responsibilities include: reviewing all aspects of accreditation, auditing existing laboratories, and responding to information requests from other federal agencies. Consequently, accreditation applications were sometimes set aside for significant amounts of time while OSHA personnel attended to their other responsibilities.
  • Unclear application requirements: OSHA's requirements for the content and level of detail to be provided in accreditation applications--such as detailed information to assess independence--differ in important ways from international standards used for accrediting safety labs. Lack of clarity in guidance about these and other requirements create confusion among applicants and extend both the amount of time applicants spend preparing the applications and the time OSHA officials spend reviewing them. OSHA said its additional requirements are important to the agency's mission, but it has not formally compared them to current international standards or recently assessed the risks, costs, and benefits of any procedures that deviate from international standards.

While OSHA plans to take some steps to improve timeliness, it has not taken advantage of a range of promising strategies, including some that might address its resource constraints and improve efficiency. GAO identified three key strategies for improving timeliness: (1) aligning program design with program mission and resources; (2) providing clear guidance and timely communication to stakeholders; and (3) developing performance measures and using data to identify inefficiencies. GAO found that OSHA has not evaluated the NRTL accreditation process to assess whether its current structure is the most efficient for processing and approving applications in a timely manner and meeting the program's goals. Consequently, OSHA's processes may be slower than necessary and planned hiring may not adequately address timeliness issues. Since the NRTL program was created in 1988, several new approaches to accreditation have been developed. For example, some federal agencies have collaborated with outside entities to complete select tasks in the accreditation process while continuing to make key oversight decisions in-house. The NRTL staff's current workload has made it difficult for them to implement other timeliness strategies, such as providing timely communication to stakeholders. In addition, OSHA recently stopped using its NRTL performance measures because officials believed that meeting them was impractical.

Why GAO did this study

American workers interact with many types of products that could pose risks to their safety. The NRTL program, administered by OSHA, works to support employers and workers by establishing a process for safety-testing certain equipment and other products for use in the U.S. workplace. Under this program, which is supported by user fees, OSHA accredits third-party labs as NRTLs, which then determine whether certain types of products meet safety standards. Because the availability of NRTLs is essential to ensuring that employers have timely access to products that meet safety standards, GAO was asked to examine (1) how long it takes to make accreditation decisions and the key factors that affect timeliness, and (2) the extent to which OSHA has adopted commonly used strategies for improving timeliness. GAO reviewed relevant documents and data from OSHA; interviewed OSHA officials, other NRTL stakeholders, and officials from four federal agencies that administer accreditation programs for other purposes; and reviewed information on strategies for improving timeliness from past GAO reports and other sources.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Labor review its current structure and procedures for accrediting NRTLs and implement alternatives that would maintain effectiveness while improving timeliness. Labor agreed with the recommendations and described its plans to address them.

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

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In 2013, OSHA reported that it had begun reviewing the risks, costs and benefits of various structural approaches to making accreditation decisions in terms of both timeliness and effectiveness in achieving OSHA's mission. The agency stated that it has begun to develop an analysis of necessary staffing levels, investigate alternative approaches to accrediting labs, and consult with staff from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and NRTL program stakeholders to obtain their views on accreditation approaches. To this end, it convened a stakeholder meeting in May 2013. According to its website, OSHA plans to convene an additional stakeholder meeting in October 2014 to discuss changes to the program. In 2014, OSHA did not provide GAO with any updated information about its review. We are encouraged by OSHA's early efforts to review its approach to accreditation and will monitor the agency's efforts to complete the review and implement any related actions.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the NRTL accreditation process, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to review the NRTL program's structure and accreditation application procedures to identify and implement any alternatives that better align program design with resource levels and improve program timeliness while remaining consistent with the agency's mission. This review should draw upon the expertise of NIST or other organizations that provide guidance on developing effective and efficient accreditation schemes. It should include identifying and evaluating the risks, costs, and benefits of various structural approaches for making accreditation decisions in terms of both timeliness and effectiveness in achieving OSHA's mission. Approaches could include using an external accrediting organization to implement some or all of the lab accreditation duties, using contractors to support in-house portions of the accreditation process, or separating testing from certification accreditation activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As of August 2014, OSHA's website stated that the agency is in the process of completely rewriting its NRTL directive and aligning it with international standards. The website states that all program policies, directives, and guides are being aligned with ISO/IEC 17025 and ISO/IEC17065. It also states that OSHA will publish a policy directive that supplements these standards with clarifications and interpretations specific to the NRTL Program. In 2013, the agency reported that it is considering various ways to incorporate international standards into the NRTL program, such as requiring that NRTL applicants be accredited for key international standards as a base requirement. Officials described this approach as similar to actions implemented by other federal agencies and said that it could simplify application-processing requirements and speed up the process. OSHA has not provided a projected timeline for completing these revisions. We are encouraged by OSHA's goals in this regard and will continue to monitor its efforts.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the NRTL accreditation process, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to review the NRTL program's structure and accreditation application procedures to identify and implement any alternatives that better align program design with resource levels and improve program timeliness while remaining consistent with the agency's mission. This review should include reviewing OSHA's current regulations and procedures to identify areas where increased alignment with international standards on accreditation may result in time savings without impairing the agency's mission to protect workers' safety and health. This could include analyzing the risks, costs, and benefits to effectiveness involved in making any program modifications or changes to existing regulations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In 2013, OSHA reported that it was in the process of reviewing the job tasks and responsibilities of its senior electrical engineers assigned to the NRTL program to better delineate responsibilities for improving quality assurance and timeliness in application processing and auditing. OSHA said that it was also considering review structures such as an internal application review board. The agency has not provided a projected timeline for completing this effort and did not update GAO on its efforts in 2014. GAO is encouraged that OSHA is reviewing job tasks and we reiterate the importance of developing a process through which accreditation decisions are reviewed by an independent technical reviewer. Such a practice would better align the decision process with internal controls principles for separating key duties and international standards on making accreditation decisions.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the NRTL accreditation process, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to review the NRTL program's structure and accreditation application procedures to identify and implement any alternatives that better align program design with resource levels and improve program timeliness while remaining consistent with the agency's mission. This review should include ensuring that all lab accreditation decisions are reviewed by an independent technical reviewer in order to better align the accreditation decision process with internal controls principles for separating key duties and international standards on making accreditation decisions. OSHA should evaluate options for achieving independent review based in part on their effects on process duration.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: OSHA held a stakeholder meeting in the spring of 2013 to solicit stakeholder input on potential changes to policies and procedures related to improving the clarity of program guidance. The agency plans to convene a similar stakeholder meeting in October 2014. GAO is encouraged by these important outreach efforts and the agency's goal of improving the clarity of program guidance. GAO will continue to monitor OSHA's efforts in this area.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the NRTL accreditation process, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to review the NRTL program's structure and accreditation application procedures to identify and implement any alternatives that better align program design with resource levels and improve program timeliness while remaining consistent with the agency's mission. This review should include improving overall program guidance and transparency to help prevent delays in the approval process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In 2013, OSHA reported that it had begun developing metrics and a database to capture performance measurement and identify application processing issues. The agency noted that, while near-term metrics will be limited in their ability to provide actionable performance trends, the application process-tracking features will be immediately available to determine progress on application processing in near-real time. OSHA has not provided a projected timeline for completing the various phases of this effort and did not provide GAO with an update on this recommendation in 2014. GAO is encouraged that OSHA is starting to develop measures and tracking systems. GAO will continue to monitor OSHA's efforts to develop near-term metrics, implement a tracking system, and plan for long-term metrics and analysis.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the NRTL accreditation process, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to review the NRTL program's structure and accreditation application procedures to identify and implement any alternatives that better align program design with resource levels and improve program timeliness while remaining consistent with the agency's mission. This review should include establishing program goals and performance measures, including timeliness goals for the approval of accreditation applications, and analyzing resulting performance measurement data to identify potential inefficiencies in the application process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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