One of every five of the 38 compliance officer positions at the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or IOSHA, are currently vacant, and its staffing issues could be contributing to the agency’s struggles with meeting its enforcement goals.
A federal audit insinuates staffing problems are behind what it calls the agency’s “consistently poor performance” in many crucial areas.
Indiana is one of 22 states with its own OSHA plan, and thus is subject to an annual audit from federal OSHA, called the Federal Annual Monitoring and Evalution, or FAME, report.
The latest FAME report covers the Indiana agency’s performance in 2015 and states that, among other findings, IOSHA employees regularly entered complaints made at OSHA.gov into its database haphazardly – or sometimes not at all. The report also alleges the agency didn’t meet an annual inspection goal and consistently failed to investigate complaints in a timely matter—taking an average of close to five weeks to initiate investigations.
IOSHA officials say the federal audit tells an incomplete story—for example, they say the e-complaints were filed after federal OSHA finished its investigation. Indiana Department of Labor spokeswoman Amanda Stanley also says the agency has significantly trimmed the time in which it initiates complaint investigations—what IOSHA describes as a non-formal information gathering process following a complaint.
If the investigations set off alarm bells, IOSHA follows up with an in-person inspection. In 2015, the report indicates it took IOSHA an average of 39 days to initiate an investigation. It took eight days to initiate the more formal inspection process.
Stanley says from January to March of 2016, IOSHA usually initiated investigations within five days, which is better than the national average of approximately seven days.
But she admits IOSHA did experience high staff turnover between October 2014 and December 2015. She calls the situation a “natural occurrence” and says IOSHA is looking to fill the positions. “It’s the nature of a good economy where opportunities are present,” she says.
“I think it’s natural to say with more people more work could be done,” Stanley adds, “But you also have to have qualified people you have to train them, you have to retain them.”
Purdue University Occupational Health Professor Frank Rosenthal says IOSHA has had trouble meeting its goals for years, even when it isn’t dealing with staffing issues. But he adds IOSHA compliance officer salaries—which, depending on experience, can be as low as $29,000 per year, mean the job isn’t as attractive as one in the private sector.
“We have different companies come here and recruit our graduates,” Rosenthal says. “It’s competitive, but many students are able to find a job with a company.”
Rosenthal says working with OSHA can be a great learning experience for a young industrial hygienist—it offers diversity in a way hardly any other careers could. Still, Rosenthal blanched at the $29,000 figure: “I’ve never heard of a company paying that low," he says.
Stanley says she can’t comment specifically on hiring practices but says IOSHA is always looking to train employees and maintain staffing levels.
According to the report, over the last three years, more than half of IOSHA personnel left, were fired, or retired.
The report’s findings are similar to some found in last year’s FAME audit, which criticized IOSHA for only completing a little more than half of its inspection goal of 2019 inspections.
IOSHA performed better under this metric in 2015, completing 73 percent of its inspection goal. However, this improvement was partly a result of the organization reducing the number of planned inspections by 400 annually.