Here we go again.
In OSHA’s 48-year-old history, the agency has experienced desperate hours on a regular schedule. The agency opened its door in 1971. Before the decade was out a “STOP OSHA” lobbying movement was underway. In 1979, Republican Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania proposed an “OSHA Improvements Act” which would have exempted from inspections all employers, large or small, regardless of industry, with good safety records. It was defeated in 1980. That year Ronald Reagan was elected president; Reagan had earlier written that “OSHA is a four-letter word that’s giving businessmen fits.”
Who’s in power? Doesn’t matter
In the 1990s, then-Vice President Al Gore vowed to “reinvent” OSHA to be more “user friendly.” Union safety leaders rolled their eyes, shook their heads. For them, these were threatening times for the agency’s mission.
In the early aughts during the George W. Bush administration, OSHA chief John Henshaw was told to scrap any idea of issuing new standards and focus on growing the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Dicey times for enforcement and standards-setting.
For years during the Obama administration, OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels worked tirelessly promoting the I2P2 standard – Injury and Illness Prevention Programs. That idea ended up in the long-term standards action dustbin. A fate reminiscent of the ergonomics standard killed off by Congress within months of Bush taking office in 2001. Desperate hours? Depends on who you ask.
A regular cycle
For a miniscule agency, (compare OSHA’s budget of approximately $550 million to the EPA budget of about $6 billion) OSHA has had a recurring cycle of dark times. The more politics change, the more they don’t – OSHA is easy to pick on. Then again, it’s hard to imagine President Trump personally interviewing the nominee to head OSHA, which President Jimmy Carter did with Dr. Eula Bingham in the 1970s. Trump’s nominee, former FedEx Ground safety leader Scott Mugno, was announced in October, 2017 and Mr. Mugno has been in limbo long enough to have retired and moved to Florida. The GOP Senate has yet to approve his nomination.
Latest dire reports
A small spate of new stories surrounding Workers’ Memorial Day in late April represents the latest doom and gloom reports. One article talks of “a desperate moment for OSHA,” “OSHA’s weakened status” and a “toothless OSHA” due to a severe staffing shortage. That report’s headline: “American Workplaces May Be Getting More Dangerous.”
How many times has OSHA been described as “toothless”? It’s a wonder the agency has any teeth left.
A second news report states: “Federal watchdog OSHA has cut workplace safety inspectors to the lowest level in its 48-year history under the Trump administration.” In 2016, the number stood at 815, down from nearly 1,000 in 2010. Due to attrition and a federal hiring freeze (since lifted), the report says only 752 inspectors are now employed.
Lonely at the top
These latest reports don’t even mention the swiss cheese nature of OSHA’s leadership. At the end of April, 2019, the OSHA org chart was shot through with with holes and vacancies and transients. Top-level senior advisors? Vacant. Deputy Assistant Secretary? Vacant. Loren Sweatt is pulling double duty as the acting head of OSHA, and also the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary. The director of whistleblower protection programs is serving on an acting basis. Temporary or acting replacements head up the directorate of enforcement programs, the directorate of training and education, and the directorate of construction.
OSHA’s chief of staff, a key position, was just filled in February, 2019.
Of OSHA’s ten regional administrators, there are “temps” holding down the job in Seattle, Denver, Dallas and New York. Barbara Goto is pulling double duty heading the San Francisco and Seattle regions. Same with Richard Mendelson in New York and Philadelphia.
Imagine a corporate org chart, at the highest level, filled with so many holes and temps. Investors, analysts, stockholders would be up in arms. Obviously, this is no way to run a sustainable, successful business.
And it’s taken its toll at OSHA. “I am in pretty close touch with a number of people in OSHA. Morale is probably at the lowest that I can recall seeing,” says a former high-ranking agency manager. “There is little to no leadership. Too many senior slots are open. This sends a message to the OSHA staff that career development and filling key positions does not matter. There is a sense among OSHA staff that the administration really does not care about what OSHA does or how it does it.”
At the local level
On the ground, an OSHA staffer who spoke to ISHN on the condition of anonymity says “desperate” may be too strong a word, but he goes on to describe churn and confusion at the area office level. In one case, the office receptionist resigned and five inspectors retired or transferred between 2015 and 2018; none were replaced. The office VPP coordinator retired and was not replaced.
“We were hoping to be able to backfill the five vacant inspector slots, but they were deleted last year,” he says.
A regional emphasis program on process safety management (PSM) inspections in oil refineries is undercut by the fact that there are no inspectors with the required six weeks of training to be a team leader of PSM inspections, according to this OSHA officer.
Right now he’s juggling three jobs: taking turns with three other staffers as acting area director (the former AD retired January 3rd and the agency has not announced the position to hire anyone); coordinating VPP activity; and providing compliance assistance to businesses.
In Washington, it’s impossible to kill a nearly 50-year-old agency like OSHA. But you can neuter it through willful neglect. The agency’s news releases on big fines are misleading. The Department of Labor and OSHA are playing a numbers game to keep up inspections and penalties, according to sources. A rear-guard action while the agency continues to shrink, literally and in stature.
— Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor,