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What's the problem? OSHA inspections often fail to find serious violations

Serious violations are found in only half of the work sites inspected by OSHA where problems would be most expected — targeted workplaces (based on a high injury/illness rate in a high-risk industry), and inspections initiated by an employee complaint, according to a recently released study by the Government Accounting Office.

In order to increase the percentage of inspections that find serious hazards, GAO made three recommendations:

  • remind complainants of the penalties for providing false information;
  • conduct outreach to employees regarding hazards; and
  • encourage employers to have safety committees that would initially address complaints.

OSHA chief John Henshaw protested that workers are protected by law to request an inspection if they believe that a serious hazard exists.

GAO responded that it still "believes that the agency could take such actions without discouraging employees from filing legitimate complaints."

As for the use of health and safety committees, "OSHA does believe that labor-management cooperation should be encouraged. However, OSHA does not and should not specify the manner in which such cooperation takes place," said Henshaw.

About half of the OSHA area office directors and compliance officers interviewed reported receiving complaints from employees (and sometimes ex-employees) "as retribution" against their employers because they had been fired or were angry with their supervisors.

Some compliance officers reported "an increase in the number of complaints during contract negotiations," but more than half of those interviewed said "almost all of the complaints they see warrant an inspection or investigation." According to another official, "managers seldom find that a complaint was filed to willfully harass an employer."

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