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Workplace Safety and Health: Multiple Challenges Lengthen OSHA's Standard Setting

GAO-12-602T Published: Apr 19, 2012. Publicly Released: Apr 19, 2012.
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What GAO Found

In summary, we found that, between 1981 and 2010, the time it took OSHA to develop and issue safety and health standards ranged from 15 months to 19 years and averaged more than 7 years. Experts and agency officials cited several factors that contribute to the lengthy time frames for developing and issuing standards, including increased procedural requirements, shifting priorities, and a rigorous standard of judicial review. We also found that, in addition to using the typical standard-setting process, OSHA can address urgent hazards by issuing emergency temporary standards, although the agency has not used this authority since 1983 because of the difficulty it has faced in compiling the evidence necessary to meet the statutory requirements. Instead, OSHA focuses on enforcement activities—such as enforcing the general requirement of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) that employers provide a workplace free from recognized hazards—and educating employers and workers about urgent hazards. Experiences of other federal agencies that regulate public or worker health hazards offered limited insight into the challenges OSHA faces in setting standards. For example, EPA officials pointed to certain requirements of the Clean Air Act to set and regularly review standards for specified air pollutants that have facilitated the agency’s standard-setting efforts. In contrast, the OSH Act does not require OSHA to periodically review its standards. Also, MSHA officials 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 instead rely on time-consuming site visits to obtain information on hazards and has not consistently coordinated with NIOSH to assess occupational hazards. Finally, experts and agency officials identified several ideas that could improve OSHA’s standard-setting process. In our report being released today, we draw upon one of these ideas and recommend that OSHA and NIOSH more consistently collaborate on researching occupational hazards so that OSHA can more effectively leverage NIOSH expertise in its standard-setting process.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony discusses the challenges the Department of Labor’s (Labor) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) faces in developing and issuing safety and health standards. Workplace safety and health standards are designed to help protect over 130 million public and private sector workers from hazards at more than 8 million worksites in the United States, and have been credited with helping prevent thousands of work-related deaths, injuries, and illnesses. However, questions have been raised concerning whether the agency’s approach to developing standards is overly cautious, resulting in too few standards being issued. Others counter that the process is intentionally deliberative to balance protections provided for workers with the compliance burden imposed on employers. Over the past 30 years, various presidential executive orders and federal laws have added new procedural requirements for regulatory agencies, resulting in multiple and sometimes lengthy steps OSHA and other agencies must follow.

The remarks today are based on findings from our report, which is being released today, entitled "Workplace Safety and Health: Multiple Challenges Lengthen OSHA’s Standard Setting." For this report, we were asked to review: (1) the time taken by OSHA to develop and issue occupational safety and health standards and the key factors that affect these time frames, (2) alternatives to the typical standard-setting process that are available for OSHA to address urgent hazards, (3) whether rulemaking at other regulatory agencies offers insight into OSHA’s challenges with setting standards, and (4) ideas that have been suggested by occupational safety and health experts for improving the process.

For more information, contact Revae Moran at (202) 512-7215 or

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Educational standardsHealth standardsWorkplace safetyFederal rulemakingWorkersOccupational safetySmall businessCourts (law)Mine safetyJudicial review