The number of federal workplace safety inspectors has fallen under the Trump administration, according to new data obtained by NBC News, raising questions about the government’s efforts to protect workers and the long-term impact of the White House’s move to slow hiring.
In the months after President Donald Trump took office, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration lost 40 inspectors through attrition and made no new hires to fill the vacancies as of Oct. 2, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The departing inspectors made up 4 percent of the OSHA’s total federal inspection force, which fell below 1,000 by early October.
OSHA’s reduced staff reflects Trump’s broader effort to slow the growth of the federal bureaucracy and is a part of the mass departure of civil servants across the government, from the Internal Revenue Service to the Environmental Protection Agency.
OSHA is one of the many federal agencies where hiring has stalled in Trump’s first year and mounting vacancies remain unfilled. Some worker advocates and former officials worry that staffing delays are undermining the work of a small but critical institution responsible for protecting the health and safety of American workers.
OSHA inspectors are the ground troops that enforce federal health and safety requirements in the workplace. Inspectors flag potential hazards, investigate employee complaints, and document apparent violations, which can result in citations, fines and other penalties against employers. Since the agency has limited resources, OSHA prioritizes high-risk workplaces like construction sites and manufacturing plants that have elevated rates of fatal accidents, illnesses and serious injuries. (Twenty-one states run their own comprehensive OSHA programs with state inspectors.)
Though the president has repeatedly stressed the need to shrink the federal workforce, OSHA has acknowledged in recent months that it needs more manpower to do the job.
Enforcing the law with fewer inspectors
OSHA insists that its enforcement efforts have remained vigorous, even with fewer inspectors on the job. According to the Labor Department, the agency conducted 32,396 OSHA inspections from October 2016 to the end of September 2017 — a few hundred more than in 2016, marking the first annual increase in five years.
But critics warn that the staff departures have crippled small, regional OSHA offices that were already short-handed. The southeast region — Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi — lost the most on-the-ground inspectors in the first eight months of the Trump administration, with 10 departures, according to data that the Labor Department sent in a letter to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., first obtained by NBC News.
“OSHA is far too understaffed to fulfill its mandate of reducing workplace injuries,” DeLauro said. “Under the Trump administration, OSHA has suffered a troubling decline in both staff and workplace inspections in key areas of the country.”
In Mississippi, which has one of the country’s highest worker fatality and injury rates, the number of federal OSHA inspections fell by 26 percent from Trump’s inauguration in January to the end of September, according to public data. Other federal offices in the region saw smaller declines in OSHA inspections during the same time period, ranging from a 5 percent drop in Alabama to a 1 percent reduction in Georgia.
Debbie Berkowitz, who was an OSHA official in the Obama administration, attributed the drop-off in enforcement to staffing shortages. OSHA did not specify how many inspectors had left in each state, but, according to the latest personnel data, the agency’s Mississippi office fell to 14 from 18 full-time employees by the end of September.
“They can’t do it all, they can’t keep up,” said Berkowitz, now a fellow at the National Employment Law Project. “What we noticed in Mississippi is there were a lot of reports of very serious injuries that OSHA wasn’t inspecting.”
Clyde Payne, former head of OSHA’s office in Jackson, said he’s concerned about the risks to workers at Mississippi’s smaller shipyards and construction companies.
“They really need close oversight because the ownership in those companies doesn’t likely have a dedicated safety staff to make sure they’re controlling their injuries and illness — they’re more likely to fall off the train,” Payne said.
Not every area with fewer inspectors saw a decline in enforcement: In Wisconsin and Ohio, the number of federal OSHA inspections last year increased from Jan. 20 to the end of September, according to agency data, despite the loss of eight on-the-ground inspectors and two inspection supervisors in the region.
The Labor Department said that hurricanes, not staffing shortages, were responsible for the decline of OSHA inspections in Southern states.
“The bottom line is OSHA inspections were up for the first time in five years,” Holland said. “That’s despite a historic hurricane season that necessitated the temporary suspension of enforcement activities in three OSHA regions, including two of its largest.” (OSHA inspections in Mississippi were declining before the first hurricanes made landfall.)
Industry groups said they haven’t noticed a shift in OSHA enforcement under the new administration. But they also stressed that government oversight was not the key to protecting workers.
“Inspectors don’t make workplaces safe. People and programs do by working to prevent problems before they occur and by creating workplace cultures where safety is top of mind,” said Eric Mittenthal of the North American Meat Institute, the meatpacking industry’s biggest trade association. “Safety programs operate continuously regardless of the frequency of OSHA inspections.”
Even if agencies get the funding and approval to increase staff, last year’s hiring delays could continue to affect the federal government’s performance.
Jordan Barab, an OSHA official under Obama, said that it typically takes months of training and experience in the field for agency inspectors to get up to speed.
“Even after OSHA hires someone, they can’t just send them out to do an inspection by themselves,” Barab said. “This will have an impact for years.”
Source: NBC News – Read the rest of the story here.