April 21, 2015

OSHA Continues Roll-Out Of Inspection Weighting, With Partial Focus On Health, Ergo

OSHA is pushing ahead with an effort to refocus scarce investigative resources toward priority areas through a data-driven system the agency calls “inspection weighting,” which uses historical data to allocate “enforcement units” for carrying out labor-intensive inspections — an approach some in industry consider a creative approach to ensuring the agency sets aside resources for complex probes instead of simply racking up inspection numbers.Agency chief David Michaels recently told OSHA staff at an all-hands meeting that “it is obvious to all of us that all inspections aren’t equal — in the amount of time and resources they take to conduct. For example, health inspections, involving chemical exposures or ergonomic hazards are particularly resource-intensive.” That is why in the past year, he said, “we have continued to work on a new inspection weighting system that takes these differences into account.”President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget request includes program increases of more than $22 million and 90 full-time staff for OSHA, for a range of initiatives, Michaels noted.OSHA’s budget request for next year notes that the enforcement weighting initiative was first piloted in fiscal 2014 and continued in fiscal 2015. “As the agency conducts more complex inspections, it is important to accurately capture the resources used to conduct such inspections. Therefore, OSHA has established a system that uses historical data to estimate ‘enforcement units’ (EUs) for enforcement activities (e.g. process safety management inspections, musculoskeletal disorder inspections or activities resolved by OSHA’s complaint resolution process).” An OSHA enforcement activity, such as an inspection, fits into a specific category and is assigned a specific number of EUs.

For example, a process safety management (PSM) inspection will receive more EUs than a traditional safety inspection, according to the request. “The EUs vary for each enforcement activity based on the weighting resources used. OSHA will use the enforcement weighting system and EU estimates to better identify and track how resources are used to conduct a variety of enforcement activities and forecast the resources it will need for the future.”

The system also will allow OSHA to account for and shift resources towards more complex hazards and provide greater protections to workers, the agency says.

OSHA says in fiscal 2016, with refined EU inspection count data and as OSHA “perfects EU inspection count estimates,” it plans to increase its EU inspection estimates by 3,000 more than the fiscal 2015 EU inspection count.

The undifferentiated inspection goal will “increase slightly if at all” for future fiscal years, according to OSHA. “In fact, the (goal) could decrease from the previous fiscal year, but the EU inspection count goal could increase, ensuring OSHA’s resource use and impactful inspections keeping American workers safe and healthy on the job.”

An industry attorney tells Inside OSHA Online that the system tackles a central problem, as OSHA has struggled in the past with the expectation that the agency conduct numerous inspections so that it would have a greater presence and theoretically increase its impact. “The problem this caused was a tendency for the agency to focus more on simpler and often less hazardous industries and conduct simplified inspections to keep its numbers up. This practice created a lack of available compliance officers to conduct more complex and time-consuming inspections that were more likely to involve more significant hazards such as process safety management and musculoskeletal issues.”

“OSHA has been creative and aggressive in finding ways to reach these hazards during the Obama administration and the enforcement weighting initiative is a perfect example of that,” the attorney says. “Since 2014, OSHA has been using the system to better identify and track how resources are being used and how they should be used going forward. This has allowed OSHA to shift resources towards more complex hazards and target employers whose employees are more likely to encounter significant workplace safety and health risks.”

But a former OSHA official argues that devising such an internal process is unnecessary as long as field staff prioritize inspections based on statutory requirements in the OSH Act, because once those issues are addressed there are scant resources left to allocate. The source does note, however, that it is very difficult for area directors to determine how to allocate resources with the agency’s limited funds and field staff.

“They have certain things they’ve got to do” regardless of the weighting system, the source notes: imminent danger allegations; fatalities and catastrophes; and formal complaints. “After that comes the high-hazard list. You can make determinations” of what to prioritize within that category, but those funds are severely constrained, the source says.

The source points out that OSHA is in a resource bind after it conducts the inspections that it must under the statute, and agrees that field staff face difficulties in deciding which further ones to pursue. “What happens is, the offices are in such pressure, unofficial pressure, to do inspections and to find violations, they want to go to those areas where they can get a lot of inspections and find violations at the same time,” the source says. “In reality that’s what happens.” — Christopher Cole ()


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