Federal OSHA and its state-level counterparts lack the resources they need to inspect all, or even a significant number, of the 9 million workplaces in the United States. The AFL-CIO calculates that it would take more than a century for these agencies to inspect every workplace at current funding levels. Thus, Fed-OSHA and state OHS agencies rely on workers and their advocates to identify workplace hazards.
Workers who can identify conditions that violate OHS standards may file a complaint and wait for an OHS inspector to conduct an investigation, but many workers are afraid to blow the whistle on unsafe working conditions because they fear retaliation by their employers. However, officials from other government agencies who observe potential OHS violations need not fear employer backlash, and can make referrals to OHS agencies. These referrals can serve as a valuable tool for OHS agencies, providing another source of reliable information about worksites that may need improvements.
What’s the Solution?
State and local government agencies could do a better job of referring cases to federal OSHA and state OHS agencies for investigation. Building inspectors, fire marshals, and other agents who enforce local codes often have legislatively granted powers to remove people from buildings or stop work at construction sites when they observe particularly dangerous conditions. Although this authority arises from the agencies’ power to enforce building and fire codes, the linkages to OHS hazards are often clear.
Workers’ advocates can capitalize on the “stop-work” powers of state and local inspectors by campaigning to ensure that inspectors have a strong understanding of how their codes overlap with OHS regulations. Advocates could campaign for training programs that would educate inspectors about the overlapping issues and ensure that inspectors submit referrals to an OHS agency every time they issue a stop-work order or code violation that directly relates to worker safety.
An important facet of this approach is that it can be accomplished without buy-in from a legislative body, although legislative support would certainly strengthen the program. For instance, advocates could consult with OHS experts who could develop a “cross-walk” document linking provisions of state or local codes to OHS laws and regulations. That document could be the centerpiece of a campaign to connect various code enforcement agencies with OHS agency enforcement staff.
Comparing Agencies’ Inspection Numbers. Advocates could strengthen their case by compiling statistics comparing the number of building code inspections in a locality with the number of planned OHS inspections. For example, New York’s Department of Buildings provides monthly lists of complaint inspections. In January 2014 alone, the agency responded to more than 9,000 complaints. Fed-OSHA’s Manhattan Area Office, by contrast, conducted 452 workplace inspections in all of CY 2013.
California Labor Enforcement Task Force.Cal/OSHA collaborates with state agencies that enforce wage-and-hour laws, workers’ compensation requirements, contracting, licensing, and other work-related programs. The task force investigates worker complaints and has developed an innovative inspection-targeting program that combines the agencies’ staff, knowledge, and authorities.