Like most governmental agencies, OSHA is not immune to political will, and the numbers of inspectors can vary wildly from administration to administration. In 1980, for example, there were 3,063 workplaces for each OSHA inspector; in 2020, there were 9,286. Further demonstrating OSHA’s diminishment: in 2010, there were the same number of OSHA inspectors (1,106) as there was 30 years earlier, but by January 2019, there were only 875 inspectors, despite the incredible growth in the American workforce.
With the reduction of inspectors, and the sheer scope of workplaces they must inspect, corners will be cut, as reported by researcher Deborah Berkowitz, former OSHA senior policy adviser. “The agency is prioritizing quantity over quality,” warned Berkowitz. “OSHA’s inspection resources are so limited that it would take the agency more than 150 years to visit every workplace under its jurisdiction just once.” COVID-19 restrictions have further lessened the reach of OSHA inspections, conducting only about one-third of the inspections it had in previous years, and even resorting to remote inspections.
Even if you aren’t a fan of OSHA visits (and who is?), you should temper your urge to celebrate. A 2012 study found that OSHA inspections reduced the injury workers’ comp claims by 9%, and lowered the medical expenses and wage replacement paid by those claims by 26%. A reduction in on-site inspections often result in workplace hazards being unidentified and unabated longer. In addition, the fewer inspectors greatly reduces whatever deterrent effect the threat of a surprise OSHA inspection – simply put, when “businesses know they’re not likely to be inspected, they are less likely to devote resources to create safe workplaces.”
With OSHA oversight increasingly becoming a non-issue due to both COVID-19 restrictions and reduction in inspectors and inspections, companies need to take the initiative to keep their workplaces safe. Regular field inspections work to maintain safety standards, while digital checklists for workers to both perform tasks and complete inspections ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to keeping workers protected, and workplaces compliant. It’s your company, and it’s up to you to keep your staff safe, even if OSHA drive-bys aren’t much of a threat. After all, it just takes one bad accident to ruin your profits, your reputation, and maybe even end someone’s life – it’s simply not worth the risk.