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OSHA assessing state safety offices’ effectiveness

– Problems in Nevada four years ago have federal officials still trying to determine whether states with their own workplace safety agencies are as good as OSHA.

So-called “state plans,” like the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Indiana OSHA, are supposed to be just as effective as the federal agency. If not, the federal government can revoke state approval and take control. There are 26 states with their own agencies.

A 2009 OSHA investigation prompted by newspaper coverage of construction deaths in Nevada found problems with that state’s program, after the federal agency had given the state favorable reports.

A subsequent OSHA evaluation in 2009 of all states also found problems with Hawaii’s program due to staffing. Issues with other state plans also arose.

Indiana’s 2009 evaluation contained 45 recommendations for IOSHA improvement, although most of them involved record keeping and data management: “Accurate documentation is critical in determining the correct classification of violations and defending them” if contested, the report states.

The evaluation commends IOSHA’s improvements to data management and its Voluntary Protection Program, a federal initiative that allows companies with good safety records to have sworn employees assist in safety evaluations. There are 59 company sites in the Indiana program.

The report also notes IOSHA’s “long history of funding difficulties.”

“The continuing lack of State funding support and proper infrastructure is also of concern and raises questions about the State’s ability to effectively address these issues. Increased Federal oversight and technical assistance may be needed to improve Indiana’s performance,” the 2009 evaluation says.

IOSHA concurred with more than half of the recommendations.

A 2010 OSHA news release noted that budget constraints and lax federal oversight might have contributed to problems among the states.

Federal OSHA has reasserted full or partial control of some state programs, Scott Allen, a U.S. Department of Labor spokesman in Chicago, wrote in an email. Most recently, faced with budgetary constraints and “staffing challenges,” Hawaii requested federal help, he said. In other states, improvements or corrections were made after OSHA took steps toward reasserting its authority, Allen said.

Whether Indiana and other states meet federal standards remains unclear. In a March 2011 audit, the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General reported that OSHA still had not designed a way to determine if state programs were “at least as effective” as OSHA, as federal law requires.

“State officials generally believed their programs were effective, but there was no quantifiable data to demonstrate effectiveness,” the audit states.

OSHA needs that to determine when a state program has failed “to serve as a basis for using its ultimate authority to revoke state plan approval.”

The federal agency has gone from on-site, intensive monitoring of state plan case files in the 1970s to discontinuing routine visits and case reviews in the mid-1980s, according to the inspector general’s audit.

In the mid-1990s, federal oversight was further reduced to a goal-based system with states producing a 5-year plan that included goals for reducing workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities.

That was followed with the 2009 Nevada investigation, which prompted annual evaluations of the state programs that require more on-site monitoring.

Last year, OSHA began soliciting suggestions on how to evaluate state programs to meet the “as effective” standard.

In response, former Indiana Labor Commissioner Lori Torres sent a July 2012 letter to OSHA stating opposition to relying solely on the number of inspections and penalties issued to gauge effectiveness. Rather, injury and illness reductions over time in various industries, the number of workers trained and satisfaction surveys of management and labor are among her suggestions.

rshawgo@jg.net

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