Faced with a monumental workplace safety crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has largely failed to protect workers. Decades of declining staffing levels left this critical agency unable to adapt to extraordinary conditions and support workers across the country when they most needed it. During his campaign, Joe Biden vowed to be the “strongest labor president you’ve ever had.” As he prepares to release his budget proposal for his first full financial year in office, the opportunity is fast approaching for Biden to put federal money where his mouth is. Biden must follow through on his pro-worker promises by expanding funding and employment levels for OSHA and OSHA state affiliates (among a slate of other sorely needed pro-labor policies) so that they have the capacity to safeguard workplace safety in times of crisis and otherwise.
The pandemic exposed the perilously underfunded and understaffed OSHA for the paper tiger that it is. OSHA failed to address the novel threat to workers posed by a deadly respiratory virus, oftentimes failing to even conduct a cursory investigation of workplace violations. Lurid reports of workplaces functioning as COVID super-spreader sites have dominated news coverage, with a lawsuit even exposing that management at an Iowa meat packing plant were betting on how many of their employees would be infected with the life-threatening virus. Over the course of FY 2020, federal OSHA workplace safety inspections declined by 35% from the previous fiscal year. Between February 1st and October 26th of 2020, an Inspector General Report found that the number of investigations conducted by OSHA fell by 50% compared to the same time period in 2019 despite a 15% increase in safety complaints to the agency. In addition to inspection failures, OSHA failed to issue workplace safety rules that would protect workers from workplace transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Though the agency has announced its intention to create binding COVID-19 workplace safety standards in the coming weeks, that will not be enough to compensate for the failures of the past year.
New standards will also do little to address longer-running problems for workplace safety, like those on display last week following Amazon’s ill-considered attempt to deny well-documented complaints of its horrendous working conditions. Amazon warehouses have been a dangerous work environment during the COVID-19 pandemic, but management has consistently disregarded their workers’ well-being prior to 2020. From warehouses with double the injury rate of similar workplaces to workers fainting due to high temperatures inside worksites, OSHA needs the funding to address violations by powerful corporate behemoths like Amazon.
As it stands, OSHA simply does not have the capacity to perform its mission. As union density falls, so too do the protections that come from unionization including safety rules enshrined in labor contracts, trained shop stewards, and workers who feel secure enough in their employment to report employer misconduct. Additionally, issues stemming from climate change are creating new threats for workers. As workers face increasingly common heat waves, larger bouts of wildfire smoke, and other significant issues, OSHA needs the resources to provide enhanced enforcement and rulemaking capacity.
How did we get here?
Located within the Department of Labor, OSHA is responsible for ensuring that workplaces across the country comply with safety regulations through preemptive inspections of hazardous worksites and responding to whistleblower complaints. OSHA does so through both a federal agency and through state OSHA affiliates which comply with the federal agency rules. Despite being responsible for a growing civilian workforce, OSHA has consistently suffered a decline in institutional capabilities since 1990.
The United States’ civilian workforce population increased by almost 38 million between 1990 and 2019, but over that same time, the number of full-time employees at OSHA declined by 25%. In 1990 there was one full-time OSHA employee for every 51,765 American workers. Though that ratio was still less than ideal, that comparatively high number is now a relic of the past, as the austerity of the Clinton era began to eat away at the agency’s capacity, a tradition carried on through successive administrations of both parties. As of 2019, there is one full-time OSHA employee for every 88,977 American workers, a 71% increase in the number of workers each OSHA employee must cover. Of the 1,838 full time OSHA employees in FY 2019, only 862 (47%) were inspectors, leaving each inspector with well over 180,000 American workers to protect. This decline in institutional capacity has led to drops in critical enforcement activity. In financial year 1990, federal OSHA conducted 45,551 inspections. By 2019 that number had fallen almost 27% to 33,401. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed that number even lower to a mere 21,674 federal-level inspections in FY 2020.
Since 2005, the declining overall inspection rate has been almost entirely attributable to a sharp drop in the rate of programmed inspections. OSHA maintains lists of workplace hazards and of hazardous industries it monitors more closely due to the increased risks posed to workers. For these workplaces, OSHA conducts preemptive inspections, ensuring that they comply with the rigorous safety standards required to prevent illness, injury, and death. OSHA’s other inspections programーunprogrammed inspectionsーare done in response to whistleblower complaints or other indications of an unsafe work environment. In recent years as OSHA’s inspection capabilities have declined, the agency has shifted its focus from programmed inspections of high hazard workplaces to unprogrammed inspections of workplaces with whistleblower complaints. In 2005 over 55% of inspections were programmed. That rate reached a height of 62% in 2009 after OSHA received additional funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act but dropped precipitously in the decade since. In FY 2019, a mere 44.5% of inspections were programmed inspections. Though this represents a comparative increase in the number of unprogrammed inspections as a result of whistleblower claims, between FY 2005 and 2019 the number of unprogrammed inspections has risen by a paltry 1,183 inspections per year (6.8%) while the number of programmed inspections of hazardous industries has fallen by 6,504 per year (a 31% decrease). The agency has attempted to keep pace with incoming whistleblower complaints in an era of declining resources by shifting a higher percentage of its resources towards unprogrammed inspections, but it has come at a steep cost; leaving high hazard industries with less oversight.
The lack of programmed investigations leaves employees with the burden of reporting employer misconduct rather than the professionalized OSHA inspectors who had previously ensured high risk worksites complied with federal safety standards. The increased reliance on whistleblower complaints is increasingly perilous in an era of declining union density. As union density falls, so too do the protections that come from unionization including safety rules enshrined in labor contracts, trained shop stewards and protections from employer retaliation. All of these protections are key to fostering an environment where workers are comfortable enough to report employer misconduct to agencies like OSHA. In addition, many high risk industries employ large amounts of undocumented workers who are more vulnerable to employer retaliation, making easier for employers to subject them to unsafe working conditions. Despite protections for workers who report employer misconduct, the threat of retaliation continues to have a significant silencing effect on the reporting of unsafe working conditions.
The declining rate of inspections has had a detrimental impact on many state OSHA affiliates as well. The Occupational Safety and Health Act, which established OSHA in 1970, allowed for states and territories to establish their own Occupational Safety and Health agencies on the promise that they be at least as effective as federal OSHA at ensuring the safety and health of workers under their jurisdiction. Currently, there are 22 state OSHA affiliates that perform workplace safety and health enforcement work similar to the federal agency and four more that do so solely for their public workforces. These agencies receive significant federal funds to carry out their duties and likewise have experienced declines in inspection capabilities since 1990. In FY 1990 state OSHA affiliates conducted 92,558 workplace inspections, but by FY 2019 that number had declined significantly to 41,849. As federal OSHA operations decline, so too does the standard to which state OSHA affiliates are held. Expanding federal OSHA capabilities would not only improve workplace standards in the states depending on federal OSHA enforcement but raise the bar for state OSHA affiliates as well.
The Biden administration’s budget proposal is a chance to increase the capacity of state OSHA affiliates by increasing state OSHA grant funding. This is not only necessary to expand state OSHA affiliate capacity but to protect current capacity levels as state governments across the country face budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These governments will be forced to make cuts to critical infrastructure unless federal assistance becomes available. While the American Recovery Plan allocated $350 billion in federal aid for cash-strapped state and local governments, the federal government needs to provide more funding. The Biden administration must expand funding of grant programs for state OSHA affiliates in order to protect worker well-being.
With present and future threats to workplace safety looming, the Biden administration cannot afford to ignore OSHA’s lack of resources for even a moment longer. Biden’s FY 2022 budget must include funding sufficient to reverse these losses and ensure the agency’s capacity to respond to future crises.