Congressman wants OSHA answers

One of the top Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives is demanding answers from Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta after OSHA reported a drop in the current inspector staffing level, a decline in enforcement activities, and other problems.

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison wrote a letter to Acosta dated July 10, 2018. “As you know, over 5,000 people died from workplace injuries in 2016. This figure represents an alarming seven percent increase from 2015 and is the highest since 2008.”  In his letter, Rep. Ellison also wrote of the impact of these statistics. “Not only does workplace death and injury cause emotional and financial harm to working families, it harms the American economy.”

Rep. Ellison, who serves as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, wants to know why there were 50 fewer OSHA inspectors in January 2018 than there were in January 2017. He also asked Secretary Acosta why the number of enforcement units, which are used to place values on certain types of inspections to gauge enforcement activity, dropped by nearly 1,100 from FY 2016 to FY 2017. Rep. Ellison also noted in his letter that in the first five months of FY 2018, enforcement units dropped by more than 1,100 more.

OSHA set a goal of 30,840 inspections in its congressional budget justification for FY 2019, a number that is 1,500 less than FY 2017, and stated that it would put its focus on “the highest-impact and most complex inspections at the highest-risk workplaces.” The agency also said that it would continue to implement a new weighting system that would analyze enforcement and other field activities that are critical to the mission. OSHA’s Enforcement Weighting System is scheduled to go into effect by October 1.

At a March 6, 2018 House Appropriations Committee hearing, Secretary Acosta  testified that OSHA could hire as many as 65 new inspectors to replace those lost to attrition since January 2017.

Despite an increase in the amount of money OSHA can fine violators, Rep. Ellison also wants to know why “enforcement penalties are not being enforced to anywhere near the intended extent.” OSHA announced June 30, 2016 that the maximum penalty for serious violations would increase to $12,471 per violation, up from $7,000, and that fines for repeated or willful violations would go from $70,000 to $124,709.

According to Rep. Ellison’s letter, the average penalty for serious violators was $3,553 in FY 2017 and in cases of worker deaths, the median penalty was $7,500 with minimal criminal prosecution.

Rep. Ellison has asked Secretary Acosta to answer his questions by July 24, 2018.