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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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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.


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.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
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.
Closed – Implemented
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (on 4/28/15) and the House Education and the Workforce Committee (introduced on 4/29/15 and reintroduced 2/8/17) introduced the Protecting America's Workers Act, legislation that strengthens and modernizes the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The Act will improve protections for workers in state plans by allowing the Secretary of Labor to assert concurrent enforcement authority in those states where the plan fails to meet minimum requirements needed to protect workers' safety and health, as we recommended.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Labor 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.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has taken steps to address on-the-job training for inspectors in state-run programs. On July 17, 2013, the head of the Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs sent a memorandum to OSHA Regional Administrators requesting assistance in providing, as well as exploring, additional opportunities for hands-on training for state inspectors. Also, in fiscal year 2013, the OSHA Training Institute offered seven courses in states and trained 4,083 state compliance/consultation personnel.
Department of Labor 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.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has taken steps to address this recommendation. OSHA has revised its State Plan Policies and Procedures Manual, effective 9/22/15. With these revisions to the Manual, the agency has formalized the biennial Federal Annual Monitoring and Evaluation process to include guidance on the substance and timeframe of Corrective Action Plans prepared by state-run programs (see Chapter 7 of the Manual). In addition, the revised Manual includes procedures on 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 (see Chapter 8 of the Manual).
Occupational Safety and Health Administration 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.
Closed – Implemented
The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has taken steps to address this recommendation. With OSHA's revisions to its State Plan Policies and Procedures Manual, effective 9/22/15, the agency has formalized the policies for modifying or withdrawing a state-run program (see Chapter 8 of the Manual). According to OSHA, the agency's lessons learned in the process of resuming concurrent jurisdiction in Hawaii has helped to shape these policies and are reflected throughout Chapter 8. For example, Chapter 8, Section II.B.3 outlines the requirements for an Operational Status Agreement and is based on the experience of drafting such an agreement for Hawaii.

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