Workers in every state experience injuries, illnesses, and fatalities due to workplace hazards, but without adequate information on what OHS agencies are doing or not doing to address those problems, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what changes these agencies need to make to better protect workers.
Federal OSHA evaluates the performance of state-plan OHS agencies—state agencies that oversee occupational safety and health pursuant to a state plan approved by federal OSHA. These evaluations, called the Federal Annual Monitoring and Evaluation (FAME) audits, determine whether the state plan is “at least as effective” as federal OSHA—the minimum legal standard that determines whether a state can continue to run its own OHS program. The evaluations focus mainly on a set of quantitative measures that states must track—from average penalty amounts to the promptness of agency activities. While valuable, the FAME reports do not provide the full scope of information about a state OHS agency’s practices that advocates need to identify problems and pursue much-needed reforms.
What’s the Solution?
Legislatures in state-plan jurisdictions should create a system for conducting annual performance audits of the state’s OHS agency. A legislative oversight committee, for example, or an independent commission with worker members could be the entity responsible for conducting these audits. The oversight body would develop qualitative and quantitative measures to evaluate the agency’s performance, prepare a detailed report, and post it online.
Instead of simply determining whether the state program is “at least as effective” as federal OSHA—a low bar—the committee would focus on maximizing the program’s effectiveness, ideally to a point that far surpasses the performance of federal OSHA and other states. State-level audits could be useful in persuading lawmakers and the public of the need for reforms, and once adopted, the oversight body could be responsible for monitoring implement of those reforms.
Designing an Audit Plan. In designing an audit plan, some groups are likely to prefer outcome-based measures that reflect the impact of agency performance on workplace safety (e.g., injury and fatality rate). Others may prefer activity-based measures that focus on the agency’s practices and procedures (e.g., the number of inspections conducted). Both types have strengths and weaknesses, and advocates could argue for a combination. For more on evaluation metrics, read OSHA Enforcement of the “As Effective As” Standard for State Plan States: Serving Process or People?, by Courtney M. Malveaux.
State Examples. Many state legislatures have offices that specialize in conducting audits of agency performance. In Maryland, the Office of Legislative Audits (within the Department of Legislative Services) conducts audits of state agency performance at the request of the legislature’s Joint Audit Committee. A state legislature may even request an outside watchdog group or research organization to conduct an audit. For example, in 2002, Maryland state Senator Brian Frosh asked the University of Maryland School of Law’s Environmental Law Clinic to assess the state’s capacity for solving its most significant environmental problems. The resulting “Frosh Report” was the precursor to an annual report now prepared by Frosh in his new role as Maryland’s Attorney General.