OSHA increases oversight of state safety agencies

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is urging states to follow national programs that target certain industries or safety concerns, as well as ramping up its state-review process, according to The Wall Street Journal. The plan is part of an effort to boost oversight of states' workplace-safety agencies following a string of construction deaths in Nevada.

If OSHA's plan is successful, workplace-safety advocates say it could correct the federal government's lax oversight of state agencies in recent years, which they say has led to weaker enforcement of safety laws. However, operators of some state workplace-safety agencies fear an adversarial relationship and warn against increasing demands during a time of budget cuts.

About half of all U.S. states operate their own workplace-safety agencies, which are funded partially by the federal government; the federal government then is required to monitor the agencies. Concerns about state workplace-safety agencies emerged after a review of Nevada's workplace-safety agency in summer 2009, which followed 12 deaths on the Las Vegas strip and public concern about the state's response.

"It was when we got the results back from [Nevada] and realized how many problems there were that we thought we better take a look at all states," says David Michaels, OSHA's assistant secretary of labor.

In addition, OSHA has asked every state to participate in a plan that would conduct extensive reviews of whether employers were properly reporting injuries, as well as urged states in the National Emphasis Program to participate more; under the program, OSHA blitzes particular industries or targets specific issues as a result of reports of major accidents or high injury rates.

Michaels and Jordan Barab, OSHA's deputy director, say they and others wrote letters to state leaders to convince them of the importance of universal compliance; all state leaders eventually signed on, saying they had never before seen such a response from federal OSHA.

However, a plan to make the emphasis program mandatory for states could continue to raise controversy. In October 2009, Barab said OSHA intended to mandate participation in the federal government-led program for the 21 states that operate their own workplace-safety agencies; he later clarified that states that don't have a high concentration of a certain industry can opt out of that program.

State-plan operators say if they are forced to participate, they should be consulted about the government's agenda and receive more funding from Washington.

Date : 4/9/2010