The agency charged with protecting 120 million U.S. workers from work injuries needs to do a better job ensuring safety at the country's most hazardous work sites, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.
At about half of the hazardous work sites, inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were unable to conduct inspections or did not find any serious violations, according to the GAO report.
As a result, OSHA officials should consider a more reliable way to make the best use of its scarce resources to inspect the work sites that pose the greatest danger to employees and are most likely to cause injury, illness or death, the report said (GAO-03-45).
For instance, the University of Tennessee database that OSHA uses to target high-risk construction as a top priority is less accurate for smaller sites, leading many field offices to select larger work sites to inspect, the report said. Studies by OSHA and outside experts have shown that smaller construction sites are actually more hazardous, on average, than larger sites.
To help alleviate this problem, OSHA should "encourage area offices to supplement inspections of large construction work sites with locally planned efforts to inspect smaller work sites," GAO recommended.
Managers at OSHA headquarters and field offices interviewed by GAO from December 2001 to October also expressed concern over their ability to focus properly on high-hazard work sites. The agency's site-targeting program relies on employer-provided information, which is often inaccurate. OSHA offices sometimes received outdated information about the site's location, making it harder for inspectors to find and visit the site.
OSHA also needs a more effective way to measure its impact on workplace safety and make sure it is meeting its strategic goals, "a difficult, but nonetheless important activity," the report said.
Currently, the agency relies on national injury and illness data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to demonstrate its impact on reducing workplace accidents. But this data presents a misleading picture of OSHA's accomplishments because the agency is only directly responsible for overseeing work site safety in 31 states, the report said.
OSHA should explore additional ways to analyze existing BLS data or the costs of collecting additional information that would allow state-level statistics, the report suggested. BLS officials told GAO that state-specific statistics exist and that they could be totaled for the group of 31 states under OSHA's direct jurisdiction for a reasonable price.
In addition, OSHA has overstated its success in meeting strategic goals because its progress report included some data on declines in injuries that took place before it implemented its strategic plan, according to the GAO study. Finally, in reporting that it exceeded its goals for reducing fatalities in the construction industry, OSHA did not acknowledge that some fatalities might have been prevented by other agencies that oversee safety-the Transportation Department, for example.
OSHA should also take steps to make sure that it trains and employs the highest quality inspectors possible, according to GAO. The agency should improve training programs for inspectors and design a system to track how well training programs work. OSHA also needs a database to record inspectors' current skills sets and identify any gaps, the report said.
Recently, OSHA restructured inspection teams so that safety and health inspectors now work together. This change has "fostered greater collaboration between safety and health inspectors," but has created a situation where team leaders are not always qualified to write out work site citations. For instance, leaders of safety inspector teams may lack the qualifications and expertise to review case files supporting health inspectors' citations. Without the proper justification, this could result in inconsistencies and citations.
OSHA officials commented that the report contained useful information and said they plan to implement some of the recommendations. But they pointed out that there have been no conclusive studies indicating that smaller construction sites are more dangerous than larger ones, and said that they have good quality control measures in place to make sure that the data employers submit about work sites is accurate.
In response, GAO said that the employer-provided data may be accurate at the time it is provided, but may be out of date by the time inspectors attempt to use it. Either way, the targeting program "intended to identify high-hazard work sites continues to direct inspection resources to large numbers of sites that have no serious violations," the report said.