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Adobe Stock / chatchai

A recent report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) claimed OSHA enforcement activity has declined in the past two years. However, an analysis from Safety.BLR finds the picture of enforcement is much more complex.

The NELP report states safety enforcement activity has steadily decreased under the Trump administration, the number of OSHA inspectors is at a historic low, the agency is failing to fill vacancies in a timely manner, and the agency has "all but stopped" issuing enforcement-related press releases, "abandoning the deterrent effect that this kind of publicity produces."

The Safety.BLR analysis finds enforcement activity has been on a downward trend for the past several years, not just FY 2017 and FY2018.

OSHA’s enforcement activity has been declining for several years from its peak of nearly 41,000 in 2012. In FY 2017, inspection totals were actually up slightly from the previous year. In FY 2018, federal OSHA conducted 32,020 inspections, compared to 32,408 in FY 2017.

There are a likely a number of factors that explain the downward trend. Staffing levels may play a role, as federal agencies have struggled to replace retiring employees for years. However, in 2015, OSHA shifted to an enforcement weighting system that accounts for the complexity of an inspection rather than simply counting the number of inspections. This system, which is still in use, encourages area offices to conduct these complex inspections rather than focusing on more straightforward inspections that can be completed quickly. This shift likely explains some of the decline in total inspections.

NELP contends that OSHA has “all but halted” press releases about enforcement actions. According to NELP’s figures, the agency issued 470 press releases in 2016 about enforcement activities and 158 in 2018.

NELP’s argument is that although OSHA cannot inspect every workplace, the threat of an OSHA inspection encourages employers to comply with the occupational safety and health statute and its regulations. NELP argues that failing to publicize enforcement may lead employers to “cut corners” on worker safety. However, as the numbers show, although OSHA may be issuing fewer press releases than it did during the Obama administration, it has not stopped the practice altogether, particularly for high-penalty cases.

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