State OSHA Will Loosen Its Requirements To Meet More Of Them

Nov 16, 2015

Credit Sharan / https://www.flickr.com/photos/mauigal/

Every year, states with their own occupational safety and health agencies are reviewed by the federal OSHA. 

The latest audit of Indiana’s agency, IOSHA (which is charged with ensuring the safety of all places of employment in the state, minus federal workers and certain maritime and agricultural operations), has shown that in 2014, the agency took 14 times longer than the national average to respond to complaints and only completed a little more than half the number necessary to meet its workplace inspection goal.

The Federal Monitoring and Evaluation, or FAME report also calls IOSHA’s staffing level “concerning.” The agency currently employs 38 compliance officers, but the state plan calls for 63.

“There are numerous areas in which Indiana OSHA is not performing,” Purdue Occupational and Environmental Health Science Professor Frank Rosenthal says. “They had been informed a year ago [in 2013’s report], that they needed to correct these deficiencies in the program, and many deficiencies still exist.”

He says the inspection record is particularly worrisome. “Inspection is a major component of what OSHA does and we know that OSHA inspections and OSHA activities does have an effect on worker health and safety,” Rosenthal says.

But both state and federal officials, including Vanessa Martin, Director of the Indianapolis-area federal office, say Indiana has been showing improvement since the report was completed.

“They have not pushed this to the side and not given it any attention,” Martin says. “They are diligently working on improving.”

IOSHA spokeswoman Amanda Stanley says IOSHA is on track to meet its goals for 2015. But that’s the result of the agency weakening some of the standards, which makes it easier to meet the benchmarks.  

Stanley says changing times call for changing measures.

“The amount of time it takes to transmit information, to communicate information, has decreased as technology has increased and changed the way we operate,” she says. “We want to make sure the measure accurately reflects the current environment.”

For this year, IOSHA, has undergone measures such as shrinking the number of yearly inspections required, from around 2,000 to 1,200 inspections. Stanley says with the new standards in place, “we are on track to meet that goal.”

In the FAME reports for nearby states Tennessee and Kentucky, the data shows those states coming much more close to meeting their inspection goals. However, Kentucky only has an benchmark of 1090 annual inspections (it completed 998). Tennessee, with a goal similar to Indiana’s 2014 benchmark, completed 1,528 of 1,856.

Stanley says the average response times for investigating complaints has been significantly reduced. Although IOSHA still takes an average of 28 days for the agency to respond to informal complaints, it responds to most formal complaints in about a week.

Stanley says IOSHA is also discussing reducing the required number of compliance officers, saying the benchmark, at more than three decades old, may be outdated.

Federal authorities say across the region, staffing and retention have been an issue for state agencies. It’s more than just not being able to find candidates, says Vanessa Martin.

“Enforcement is nothing really easy to do,” she says. “So you have some people who would think that would be the job for them, for us. It’s not simple, and you really have to get someone in who understands the process.”

“Overall, OSHA is understaffed in the United States overall,” Frank Rosenthal says. “[There’s] 2,000 inspectors in the United States, so a lot of work could be done.”

Martin also says there might be more behind Indiana’s low inspection numbers than a shortage of compliance officers, including changes in policy that take time to sink in.

Stanley says the open positions are filled with qualified individuals, but available funding and resources right now only allow for 38 or 39 inspectors.

Tennessee’s agency requires only 36 health and safety compliance officers, and 31 of its spots are filled. Kentucky’s plan calls for 39 officers, and as per its 2014 FAME report, all those positions are filled.

IOSHA receives about half of its funding from federal awards. Federal officials say that if a state agency can’t fulfill its duties, that funding could be taken away, though Indiana is far from that point. Federal officials are expected to conduct the 2015 audit early next year.