The Government Accountability Office (GAO) Feb. 25 issued a report that recommends the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) make improvements to how it monitors enforcement efforts. 

The review was conducted after U.S. House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) and Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chairman Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) called for GAO to conduct a comprehensive review of OSHA enforcement programs. Kline and Walberg felt the review was necessary after a March 2011 report issued by the Department of Labor’s Inspector General found OSHA was unable to evaluate the impact of its own enforcement policies or determine the effectiveness of state safety plans. 

Some key findings in the GAO report include:
  • OSHA continues to rely on the number of citations and size of violations to help determine the effectiveness of its enforcement activities, rather than outcomes, such as the number of workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses. As a result, it is unclear how OSHA will be able to identify enforcement policies that truly promote safer workplaces. 
  • In its revised fiscal year 2011 operating plan, OSHA acknowledged that it had not devoted substantial resources to evaluate its enforcement activities; therefore, the agency knows little about the effectiveness of its policies, programs and strategies.
  • Enforcement audits of OSHA’s regional offices are not conducted independently and regional office staff organize manage, and complete individual audits of each region. In addition, audits of regional offices are conducted with little input from the national office and no national office staff participated in any of the comprehensive audits of the 10 regional offices – despite a 2011 agency directive. 
  • Guidance on what must be included in the audits of state-run safety programs has changed each year. The report notes, “OSHA’s lack of consistent guidance for audits of these state-run programs may allow enforcement deficiencies to go undetected, increasing the risk of worker injuries, illnesses, or death.”
As a result of the report, GAO recommended OSHA standardize guidance for its audit practices, include outcomes in in its assessments of enforcement initiatives, make better use of the data from its audits, and ensure national office participation in audits. 

 “OSHA is charged with enforcing health and safety standards in 8 million worksites, yet it still doesn’t have an effective way to determine whether its policies actually work,” said Kline and Walberg. “Rather than devote precious resources to unnecessary regulatory schemes, the agency should develop a strategy that can identify strengths and weaknesses in its enforcement practices.”

OSHA generally agreed with the recommendations in the report, but expressed concern about overuse of outcomes to assess effectiveness.