The federal government’s watchdog for workplace safety made over 32,000 inspections each of the past two years and such scrutiny could increase with 76 new inspectors.
“The Department is committed to fostering an environment that promotes disclosure of dangerous work conditions and protects whistleblowers,” U.S. Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta told a House of Representatives committee on April 3, 2019.
Acosta’s remarks on the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were posted on Construction Dive, a construction industry newsletter.
Acosta said the new inspectors were hired over the past year and it would be one to three years before they are trained to inspect on their own.
OSHA employees are working hard to prepare the new inspectors, with a “significant increase” expected in federal fiscal year 2019, which runs from Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 30, 2019, Acosta told lawmakers.
Uncovering potential workplace hazards
In the previous fiscal year, OSHA made 26,362 compliance assistance visits covering more than 970,000 workers and ensuring that 135,021 hazards were identified and corrected.
Acosta said that enforcing federal safety standards in the workplace, an effort driven by inspections and investigations, is vital to reduce injuries.
In the months after President Donald Trump took office, OSHA lost 40 inspectors through attrition and made no new hires to fill the vacancies as of early October 2017, according to NBC News
Inspectors flag potential hazards, investigate complaints filed by employees and document violations. Penalties can include citations and fines. Since OSHA has limited resources, the agency prioritizes high-risk workplaces, like construction sites and manufacturing plants, that have higher rates of fatalities and injuries.
Acosta also addressed one of Trump's steps to slash regulations and have the federal government take a more business-friendly approach. Under Trump, OSHA has stopped what Acosta called a “shaming press release” policy.
That meant that instead of harsh, accusatory statements aimed at construction companies, OSHA encouraged the companies to seek federal help in establishing safety standards while maintaining stiff fines as penalties for violations.
OSHA, under Trump, fined a Florida roofing company over $1.5 million in 2017 for repeatedly failing to establish fall protections. A Boston company was fined $1.5 million for safety violations after a trench collapsed and killed two employees in 2016.
In some cases, ignoring OSHA standards lands a company in the federal agency’s Severe Violator Program. The program aims increased scrutiny and federal court enforcement at employers who have shown indifference to safety standards “by committing willful, repeated or failure-to-abate violations.”
For small businesses, OSHA offers free on-site consultations. Employers can learn about potential hazards at their workplaces, improve existing programs and qualify for a one-year exemption from routine OSHA inspections.
Visits from OSHA in the small business consultation program include no citations or penalties. Business owners are expected to correct safety and health hazards in a timely fashion.
Acosta said OSHA is committed to fostering an environment that promotes disclosure of dangerous work conditions and protects whistleblowers. OSHA’s Whistleblower Program prevents retaliation against workers that report problems.
If you were injured on the job due to a workplace hazard that should have been addressed, you may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.
Contact McLaughlin & Sanchez to learn more.