GAO Says OSHA Takes Too Long to Develop Safety Standards

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.

In a report released Thursday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) 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 seven 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.

GAO 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). 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.

In the report, experts and agency officials identified several ideas that could improve OSHA’s standard-setting process:

  • Improve coordination with other agencies. Experts and agency officials noted that OSHA has not fully leveraged available expertise at other federal agencies, especially NIOSH, in developing and issuing its standards. OSHA officials said the agency considers NIOSH’s input on an ad hoc basis but OSHA staff do not routinely work closely with NIOSH staff to analyze risks of occupational hazards. They stated that collaborating with NIOSH on risk assessments, and generally in a more systematic way, could reduce the time it takes to develop a standard by several months, thus facilitating OSHA’s standard-setting process.
  • Expand use of voluntary consensus standards. According to OSHA officials, many OSHA standards incorporate or reference outdated consensus standards, which could leave workers exposed to hazards that are insufficiently addressed by OSHA standards that are based on out-of-date technology or processes. Experts suggested that Congress pass new legislation that would allow OSHA, through a single rulemaking effort, to revise standards for a group of health hazards using current industry voluntary consensus standards, eliminating the requirement for the agency to follow the standard-setting provisions of section 6(b) of the OSH Act or the APA. One potential disadvantage of this proposal is that any abbreviation to the regulatory process could also result in standards that fail to reflect relevant stakeholder concerns, such as an imposition of unnecessarily burdensome requirements on employers.
  • Impose statutory deadlines. OSHA officials indicated that it can be difficult to prioritize standards due to the agency’s numerous and sometimes competing goals. In the past, having a statutory deadline, combined with relief from procedural requirements, resulted in OSHA issuing standards more quickly. However, some legal scholars have noted that curtailing the current rulemaking process required by the APA may result in fewer opportunities for public input and possibly decrease the quality of the standard. Also, officials from MSHA told GAO that, while statutory deadlines make its priorities clear, this is sometimes to the detriment of other issues that must be set aside in the meantime.
  • Change the standard of judicial review. Experts and agency officials suggested OSHA’s substantial evidence standard of judicial review be replaced with the arbitrary and capricious standard, which would be more consistent with other federal regulatory agencies. The Administrative Conference of the United States has recommended that Congress amend laws that mandate use of the substantial evidence standard, in part because it can be unnecessarily burdensome for agencies. As a result, changing the standard of review to “arbitrary and capricious” could reduce the agency’s evidentiary burden. However, if Congress has concerns about OSHA’s current regulatory power, it may prefer to keep the current standard of review.
  • Allow alternatives for supporting feasibility. Experts suggested that OSHA minimize on-site visits—a time-consuming requirement for analyzing the technological and economic feasibility of new or updated standards—by using surveys or basing its analyses on industry best practices. One limitation to surveying worksites is that, according to OSHA officials, in-person site visits are imperative for gathering sufficient data in support of most health standards. Basing feasibility analyses on industry best practices would require a statutory change, as one expert noted, and would still require OSHA to determine feasibility on an industry-by-industry basis.
  • Adopt a priority-setting process. Experts suggested that OSHA develop a priority-setting process for addressing hazards, and as GAO has reported, such a process could lead to improved program results. OSHA attempted such a process in the past, which allowed the agency to articulate its highest priorities for addressing occupational hazards. Reestablishing such a process may improve a sense of transparency among stakeholders and facilitate OSHA management’s ability to plan its staffing and budgetary needs. However, it may not immediately address OSHA’s challenges in expeditiously setting standards because such a process could take time and would require commitment from agency management.

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