Oversight Needed for Maryland's Occupational Safety and Health Division

by Katie Tracy

Maryland's Occupational Safety and Health division (MOSH) is struggling to carry out its mission of ensuring the health and safety of Maryland workers, according to CPR's analysis of a mandatory performance report the agency provided to the state legislature late last year.

The Maryland legislature mandated the report as a condition of releasing $250,000 of MOSH's FY 2018 funds. Our review of the report and other agency materials leads us to conclude that the agency's limited budget is a key culprit in its shortcomings in recent years. Namely, MOSH is struggling with significant turnover among health and safety inspectors, and this management challenge is compounded by resource shortfalls. Without enough inspectors, MOSH is failing to meet its inspection targets, leaving too many employers to police themselves and putting workers at risk. MOSH is also declining to update its regulatory standards on a timely basis, which may also be due to insufficient resources. 

The State of MOSH's Budget 

As the state agency tasked with implementing Maryland's federally approved state occupational safety and health program, MOSH gets up to 50 percent of its funding annually from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Between 2009 and 2017, MOSH received only a modest 1.6 percent increase in its overall budget from both federal and state sources. Notably, the state-funded portion of the budget declined by roughly six percent over the same period, despite the fact that the agency has failed to meet its enforcement goals in recent years due to understaffing. 

Fortunately, Maryland's FY 2018 appropriations provided a modest increase in MOSH's funding, and the FY 2019 budget proposed another slight increase at the start of negotiations. However, FY 2019 funding isn't guaranteed until the budget process concludes. Additionally, further assessment of MOSH's performance over the following year is needed to determine whether these funding levels are sufficient for the agency to operate effectively or whether additional funding is warranted in the future. 

MOSH Is Struggling to Retain Compliance Officers 

According to MOSH's performance report, the agency operates with a staffing benchmark of 54 compliance officers (36 safety and 18 health) to conduct all inspections of the roughly 160,000 worksites employing approximately 2.4 million workers throughout the state. This equates to roughly one inspector per 45,000 workers. 

This is a significant cause for concern. First, the agency's benchmark is based on levels that haven't been revised in more than 30 years – since 1985 – despite the fact that Maryland's workforce has grown substantially over that period. Second, the International Labor Organization (ILO) recommends the benchmark be set at one inspector per 10,000 covered workers. To satisfy that recommendation, MOSH would need about 250 inspectors on staff; yet, from 2009 to 2016, MOSH employed at most 61 compliance officers, with the fewest compliance officers in 2016 at a mere 43. 

According to information provided by MOSH in its performance report, the agency's overall reduction in inspections and enforcement is directly linked to its inability to retain compliance officers. Throughout the report, MOSH states that its "inspections were reduced from projected activities due to the decreased number of inspectors through retirements and those leaving the agency for other positions." 

MOSH Is Not Meeting Its Inspection Targets 

In 2016, with the lowest staffing levels on record since 2009, MOSH was only able to conduct about 1,100 inspections – meaning the vast majority of Maryland workplaces were uninspected. AFL-CIO has calculated that it would take MOSH 158 years to inspect each workplace within its jurisdiction just once. In fact, from federal FY 2013 to 2016, MOSH failed to meet its target inspection goal – a goal that the agency itself is actively involved in negotiating with OSHA. Despite cutting the goal for FY 2016, MOSH still dramatically underperformed. 

MOSH Is Deliberately Delaying New Protections for Maryland Workers 

As a condition of MOSH's state plan state status (and federal dollars), Maryland must ensure that MOSH continues to be at least as effective as OSHA. As part of this requirement, when OSHA adopts a new standard, MOSH is supposed to adopt an identical or stronger standard within six months. For example, OSHA recently updated its base penalties to account for inflation since penalties were last adjusted in the early 1990s. OSHA has also adopted a standard to reduce occupational exposure to crystalline silica, which would protect Maryland construction workers from needlessly contracting fatal silicosis disease. Yet according to MOSH's report, the agency had yet to incorporate these standards as of October 2017. The official reason given for this failure was that the agency is waiting for the outcome of pending litigation, but this is an unconscionable reason for MOSH to leave Maryland workers in harm's way, and it's contrary to the agency's core mission. Moreover, the litigation MOSH was referring to concluded in December, yet the agency has since refused to adopt the silica standard, claiming it’s waiting on OSHA to respond to a court order and explain its decision not to include medical removal protection in the standard. 

One Small Step Forward 

Keeping government inspectors in the field with sufficient resources to carry out MOSH's mission is the best way to protect Maryland workers and our high-road employers against unfair and unsafe business practices. For this reason, CPR's Executive Director Matthew Shudtz and I provided written testimony to the Maryland General Assembly's House Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Education & Economic Development, urging them to require MOSH to submit a second annual performance report so that we can continue to assess MOSH's budget needs. 

As we write in our testimony, requiring the agency to submit this report again in the year ahead would help identify strategic opportunities to meet MOSH's critical needs and ensure that Maryland's workforce remains protected from safety and health hazards that pose a significant risk of illness, injury, and death on the job. 

Thankfully, the Maryland House Appropriations Committee budget report proposes language to require that performance report. The budget process isn't finished yet, but we hope when the appropriations bill goes to a conference committee, this language will make it into the final bill. 

While we believe that MOSH needs a much higher level of funding than proposed for FY 2019, currently there is not support across all branches of Maryland government to raise the agency's funding substantially. We hope that in coming years, there will be leadership at all levels committed to funding MOSH at levels sufficient for the agency to meet the ILO benchmarks and enforce the law effectively.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that federal litigation over the silica standard concluded in December 2017 and that MOSH later declined to adopt the standard for other reasons.



© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform