Defending the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's recent inspection record before Congress, Secretary of Labor R. Alexander Acosta highlighted the number of annual OSHA inspections that have occurred over the past two fiscal years, and told legislators he expects further increases as the agency continues to onboard newly hired inspectors.
Appearing before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee for the first time since Democrats took back the House, Acosta sought to combat criticisms that OSHA enforcement activity has declined during his two-year tenure as Labor Secretary and ensure that more inspectors and inspections are on the way.
In his April 3 testimony before Congress, Acosta touted the increases in OSHA inspections that occurred in 2017 and 2018 despite the attrition of compliance safety and health officers. He predicted that newly onboarded CSHOs would push inspection numbers even higher in 2019.
Acosta called attention to the fact that in both fiscal year 2017 and 2018, OSHA conducted more than 32,000 inspections, exceeding the FY 2016 total of 31,948 inspections. He also noted that the agency achieved these numbers despite having just 875 CSHOs as of Jan. 1, 2019, the lowest number of inspectors in the agency's 48-year history, according to a recent National Employment Law Project data brief.
"OSHA managed to conduct over 32,000 inspections in FY 2017 and 2018, despite the agency employing record-low numbers of inspectors at the start of 2019."
OSHA also dedicated substantial resources to hiring and training 76 new inspectors in FY 2018, after the agency was granted blanket approval to hire needed inspectors in August 2017. For the upcoming fiscal year, the Department of Labor committed to bringing on an additional 26 new full-time equivalent inspectors.
Preparing new hires to conduct independent inspections can take anywhere from one to three years, depending on both their prior experience and the complexity of the inspection types, and new hires do not typically conduct independent inspections during this training period. Acosta claimed that OSHA has worked hard to onboard and train new inspectors and expects to see a significant increase in inspections in FY 2019.
Acosta also cited data showing a decrease of 43 workplace fatalities and 40,000 workplace injuries from calendar year 2016 to calendar year 2017. He did not, however, mention that the NELP brief stated that in 2018, OSHA conducted 929 fatality/catastrophe investigations, the most in a decade and a strong indicator that workplace fatalities shot back up last year.
Another point of contention between House Democrats and Secretary Acosta was President Donald Trump's administration's budget proposal for FY 2020, which includes a modest $300,000 increase in OSHA funding over the $557.2 million that the agency received in FY 2019.
When asked about the budget proposal's apparent deficiencies, Acosta pointed to an increase of roughly $3.8 million in funding for federal enforcement.
"I would take issue with the budget not reflecting an enforcement priority because, in fact, it does," Acosta told legislators, according to Safety and Health Magazine.
The Secretary also cited the hiring and training of new inspectors that the budget covered.
"Once these inspectors can go out in the field independently, I fully expect, and have told OSHA that I expect, the inspections to be up even more," Acosta confirmed.
It is also nearly certain that OSHA will receive more than the $557 million sought by the Trump administration's budget proposal, since that figure includes an attempt to eliminate the $10.5 million Susan Harwood Training Grant Program, which Democrats are sure to oppose. Even when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, the White House's previous two efforts to cut the program failed due to congressional opposition.
"We hope that we can do a little bit better for you than your own budget," Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), the subcommittee's ranking member, told Acosta.
With OSHA committing to an increase in the recent record-low number of inspectors and congress pledging to boost the agency's enforcement funding, employers should be prepared for an increase in inspections over the course of the next few years, as new CSHOs continue to complete their training and begin conducting independent inspections.