State Plans Falling Short of Inspection Goals; GAO

The watchdog agency's report to the minority members of the U.S. House Education & the Workforce Committee found state budget cuts and staffing shortages are hurting the plans' effectiveness.

A Government Accountability Office report about OSHA-approved state plans' performance was released April 18 by U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., ranking member of the U.S. House Education & the Workforce Committee, and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., ranking member of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee. Both said they are concerned about the report's conclusion that state plans are falling short of their inspection goals because of state budget cuts and staff shortages. State plans operate in 21 states and Puerto Rico, covering private employers, while four states' plans handle enforcement in the state and local public sector only.

The GAO investigators focused on Nevada and Hawaii, two state plans with well-known problems, as well as Arizona, California, Michigan, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

"In exchange for federal funding of up to half their costs, federal law sets minimum standards for states to inspect workplaces and investigate fatalities and complaints of unsafe practices. It's concerning that GAO found that too many states aren't living up to the end of their bargain," Miller said. "OSHA needs to set deadlines for states to improve their programs and assist states where they can with training, while Congress needs to live up to its end of the bargain by providing adequate funding for state OSHA plans."

GAO recommended that Congress pass a law allowing OSHA to intervene more quickly when state worker safety programs are failing, and Miller included such language in the Protecting America's Workers Act, which he introduced April 18 with Courtney. Among other things, the bill would require OSHA to investigate all deaths and serious injuries that occur within a place of employment.

"GAO has found that, due to funding shortfalls and an inability of states to compete with private industry for talented workers, some state plans are failing to adequately inspect American workplaces," Courtney said. "As a result, these states are falling short in their mission to protect workers. Congress needs to ensure that state plans are provided an increase in funding, rather than the deep freeze they have been in for the past few years, so that states have the tools they need to succeed."

The report said hiring freezes, furloughs, low pay, and across-the-board salary reductions are producing high turnover and staffing shortages in state plans, and some states have returned federal matching funds because they could not find state funding to meet the match. Once state inspectors are trained, they often leave for higher-paying positions, a significant problem for the Alaska state plan because of high oil industry salaries there, according the GAO. Specific findings include these:

  • In 2010, the Nevada governor imposed a hiring freeze and reduced or eliminated state employee pay increases. In July 2011, Nevada's legislature imposed a 2.5 percent wage reduction for all state employees, and the state could only conducted 1,254 inspections -- 59 percent of its goal. GAO reported some applicants turned down employment interviews with the OSHA program after learning the starting salary was only $35,997.
  • California, Michigan, and New Mexico have instituted hiring freezes, preventing their state plans from filling vacancies. Kentucky and Tennessee imposed furloughs.
  • Portions of Hawaii's state program were voluntarily surrendered to federal OSHA in 2012 after a 50 percent cut to the Hawaii OSHA budget.
  • In Utah, OSHA sought to raise inspector salaries but state government would not approve the request.
  • Higher salaries offered by oil companies have reduced staffing levels in Alaska's OSHA program by 54 percent.

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