When the government shut down on October 1, 90 percent of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) inspectors were furloughed, according to a memo from agency head David Michaels. “Only enough staff remain now to respond to serious emergencies,” as Bloomberg BNA reports. “It puts the agency in a very precarious situation,” former OSHA chief of staff Gabe Sierra told the publication.
Other problems will build up while OSHA staff are on furlough. The shutdown will create a backlog of enforcement cases, which staff will have to work through once they come back. The enforcement division won’t be able to answer employers’ questions about how the agency interprets its standards, and that will also create a big backlog in unanswered letters. The agency may miss out on opportunities for scientific research, particularly at any physical events, as staffers won’t be able to visit and collect important evidence and interviews that could help develop new standards.
OSHA inspections are too few and far between during normal times. The average workplace will only see an OSHA inspector every 99 years thanks to perpetually low funding and staffing challenges. It had fewer inspectors in 2011 than in 1981. Yet the number of workplaces doubled in that time, meaning a drop in the ratio of inspectors to workplaces by half. And even though the agency was able to mostly mute the impact of sequestration this year, next year the cuts could have a serious impact on safety.
The inability to adequately inspect workplaces has deadly effects. More than 4,500 workers were killed on the job in 2011, which makes for an average of 13 a day. And there has been a string of deadly accidents this year. A fertilizer plant exploded in West, TX in April, killing 15 and injuring more than 160. That plant hadn’t been inspected since 1985. Two different chemical plants exploded in Louisiana in June, the first killing two and injuring 73 in Geismar and the second killing one and injuring seven in Donaldsonville. Later that month, a grain plant exploded in Indiana, killing one worker, at a plant that has never seen an OSHA inspector. And in July, a gas tank plant exploded in Florida, injuring eight and leaving four in critical condition.