WASHINGTON ― The number of workplace safety inspectors has fallen during the two-plus years of the Trump administration, leading to fewer in-depth investigations of on-the-job dangers, according to a new analysis of Labor Department records.
The National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, said staffing and inspection data show the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has “dramatically reduced” its pursuit of complex cases that typically lead to big fines. That, the group argues, indicates the agency is being less proactive in enforcing the law and keeping workers safe.
“The Trump administration is scaling back OSHA enforcement activity, putting workers’ lives at risk and undercutting businesses that play by the rules and prioritize worker safety,” the report asserted.
A Labor Department spokesperson noted that the total number of OSHA inspections increased in 2017 and 2018 compared to the end of President Barack Obama’s administration. That happened “despite the suspension of inspections in many areas of our nation due to hurricanes, fires, and other natural disasters recovery efforts,” the spokesperson said.
But Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA official during the Obama presidency who is now a workplace safety expert at NELP, said the total number of investigations is a misleading indicator of how much enforcement is going on. Many of those inspections can be quick and superficial, she said.
In 2016, OSHA developed a new methodology for measuring enforcement, weighting investigations based on the amount of time and resources they require. The idea was to lend more credit to deeper inspections that have more impact. Using that metric, Berkowitz said, the number of thorough workplace inspections has dropped notably.
“The Trump administration is scaling back OSHA enforcement activity, putting workers’ lives at risk.”
According to the analysis, last fiscal year OSHA carried out a third of the number of inspections related to musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, when compared with the final fiscal year of the Obama administration. It performed roughly half the number of inspections related to hazardous levels of heat, and a third of the probes related to chemical exposure.
Such examples illustrate OSHA cutting back on “the more complicated and often the highest-impact inspections,” even though the raw number of cases hasn’t changed much, the report says.
OSHA does not release figures on how many workers die on the job at worksites it regulates. But it does release the number of investigations it performs due to fatalities and hospitalizations in a given year. That number fell between 2016 and 2017, to 837 from 890. But it appears to have spiked in 2018, up to 929, according to preliminary OSHA data that hasn’t been finalized yet.
Such an increase would make now an especially bad time for attrition inside the agency, Berkowitz said.
Many inspectors who have left OSHA since 2017 have not been replaced. The Labor Department made no new inspector hires during the first eight months of the Trump presidency. Over the same period, 40 inspectors left. NBC News reported last year that the attrition amounted to about four percent of the agency’s inspection workforce.
There were 875 OSHA inspectors on board as of Jan. 1, according to the NELP report. That’s down from 952 in 2016. There were more than 1,000 on staff in 2010.
The Labor Department spokesperson said the agency hired 76 inspectors in fiscal 2018 to replace employees who retired or left the agency. The Trump administration’s budget proposal, released earlier this week, also calls for funding another 26 OSHA inspectors.
But Berkowitz said the agency has put itself in a deep hole.
“The number of inspectors is the lowest in the agency’s history, and it’s not because of budget cuts,” Berkowitz said. “They stopped hiring... It has a bad consequence.”
The Trump administration implemented a hiring freeze upon his inauguration, a move intended to shrink the size of the federal government, which the president described as “bloated.” The White House explicitly said they would use attrition as a means to cull staff from agencies.
That freeze was lifted several months later, but agencies were still slow to hire. The record-setting, 35-day government shutdown over Trump’s border wall didn’t help when it came to filling vacancies in the federal workforce, as hiring at affected agencies went on hiatus.
Berkowitz said the attrition inside an agency like OSHA has real-world consequences, as employers are more likely to get a pass when they endanger their employees.
“I think it’s important to hold OSHA’s feet to the fire,” Berkowitz said.
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