OSHA currently has the lowest number of health and safety inspectors in the agency’s 48-year history, according to an analysis of recent government data by the National Employment Law Project.

Conversely, the number of OSHA investigations following work-related fatalities reached a 10-year high, climbing to 929 inspections in FY 2018, up almost 100 from the previous year. This is the single-largest increase in such investigations in a decade.

“The latest data from OSHA is very alarming,” said Debbie Berkowitz, NELP’s program director for worker health and safety, and a former senior official with OSHA. “We’re seeing huge red flags in the continued drop in enforcement and staffing at OSHA, while the number of workplace fatality investigations is at a decade high.”

Berkowitz said the data suggests that workplace deaths are on the rise.

In FY 2016, OSHA reported a total of 42,900 enforcement units as their measure of enforcement activity. In FY 2018, that figure went down to approximately 41,500 enforcement units.

The NELP said the agency’s reduction in enforcement is largely the result of cutbacks in the number of complicated, high-impact safety and health inspections. According to OSHA’s own data, the agency has:

  • Conducted one-third the number of inspections involving hazards causing musculoskeletal disorders, even though these painful and often crippling conditions are the number-one work-related illness in the country;
  • Reduced by half the number of inspections regarding heat stress, even though last year was one of the hottest years on record;
  • Reduced by one-third the number of inspections where investigators measure individual workers’ levels of chemicals and other toxic agents; and
  • Cut by half the number of high-penalty cases.

The report notes that the lack of staffing at OSHA is not due to budget cuts, but to agency delays in hiring.

According to a statement released by NELP, the low staffing levels have consequences for worker safety: “In addition to the precipitous rise in work-related fatality investigations, the lack of inspectors at the agency means that workplaces with multiple cases of severe injuries are not receiving on-site inspections.”