Workers Threatened by Decline in OSHA Budget, Enforcement Activity

by Matthew Madia, 1/23/2008

The consolidated appropriations bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in December 2007 cuts the budget of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for Fiscal Year 2008. OSHA, like many other federal agencies, already faces budget constraints that make it more difficult for the agency to achieve its mission. Over the past three decades, OSHA's budget, staffing levels, and inspection activity have dropped while the American workforce has grown and new hazards have emerged.

In 1970, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), creating OSHA. OSHA is responsible for assuring the safety and health of America's workforce, primarily by setting workplace safety standards through regulation and enforcing those standards.

Long-term trends
By the end of the Carter administration, OSHA was up and running and operating at resource levels that would turn out to be 20-year highs. In 1982, OSHA's budget was cut sharply and remained near those levels throughout the Reagan administration. OSHA's budget rebounded slightly during the George H.W. Bush administration but fell again in FY 1993. The budget grew during the last years of the Clinton administration and, by FY 2001, reached an all-time high. (See Graph 1a.) Since then, OSHA's budget has been cut every year when adjusted for inflation. (See Graph 1b.)

Graph 1a

 

Graph 1b

 

As OSHA's budget has ebbed and flowed, so too has its staffing level. In FY 1980, OSHA's staffing level hit its peak — 2,950. For FY 2006, OSHA had a staff of only 2,092, the second-lowest level in 30 years. (See Graph 2.) In 1980, OSHA had approximately three staff members for every 100,000 American workers. For FY 2006, staffing levels had been cut in half for every 100,000 American workers — to only 1.5 staff members.

 

Graph 2

 

However, looking at overall appropriations and staffing does not provide adequate insight into whether OSHA is fulfilling its mission to protect American workers. The bulk of OSHA's work is in enforcement. The federal budget for federal and state enforcement activity has declined more sharply over time than the overall OSHA budget. Subsequently, the number of workplace inspections conducted by both OSHA and state agencies has fallen dramatically.

The federal government funds inspections conducted by both OSHA inspectors and state workplace safety inspectors. Under the OSH Act, the federal government provides grants of up to 50 percent of the total costs of state enforcement programs. Currently, 21 states have their own workplace safety programs, which have been approved by OSHA and receive federal grants. The enforcement budget referenced here includes both federal inspection funding and state grants from the federal government.

OSHA's budget for enforcement activity is currently 12 percent lower than it was in FY 1980. (See Graph 1a.) OSHA was appropriated $264 million for enforcement activity for FY 2006, compared to $301 million in FY 1980 when adjusted for inflation.

Inspection activity has suffered at least in part due to budget constraints. The number of workplace inspections conducted by federal and state regulators has rebounded since falling to all-time lows during the Clinton administration. However, regulators are still conducting far fewer inspections than they did throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. In FY 1980, federal and state inspectors made more than 174,000 visits to American workplaces. In FY 2006, fewer than 97,000 inspections were conducted. (See Graph 3.)

 

Graph 3

 

When adjusted for the growing size of the American workforce, the drop in inspection activity is even greater. In 1980, OSHA and state regulators conducted 1.77 inspections per 100,000 workers. By 2005, OSHA and the states conducted only 0.668 inspections per 100,000 workers — a 62 percent drop.

Although the data indicate a correlation — and not necessarily a cause-effect relationship — between inspection rates and fatalities, as inspection activity has dropped, progress in reducing workplace fatalities has slowed. Since the passage of the OSH Act and the creation of OSHA, workplace fatality rates have plummeted. In 1970, the year Congress passed the OSH Act, the fatality rate was 18 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to the best available data. By 2006, that rate had fallen to 4.1 (See Graph 4.)

 

Graph 4

 

Still, 5,703 workers died on the job in 2006 — an average of more than 15 every day. In recent years, the once-consistent rate of reduction in the fatality rate has slowed. From 1996 to 2005, the fatality rate dropped by 0.8. For the period 20 years earlier, 1976-1985, the fatality rate dropped by 3. Perhaps most disturbingly, in 2004, the fatality rate rose for only the second time since OSHA's creation.

Recent trends
OSHA's budget has been cut each year President Bush has been in office, when adjusting for inflation. Since reaching an all-time high in FY 2001, OSHA's overall budget has fallen more than five percent under Bush.

Funds appropriated for enforcement activity fell almost 8 percent from FY 2001 to FY 2008. (See Graph 1b.) Although money appropriated for enforcement activity has fallen during the Bush administration, the number of inspections conducted by OSHA and state regulators has remained consistent.

While the overall budget and enforcement budget at OSHA have declined, the budget for compliance assistance has risen. OSHA compliance assistance programs allow federal regulators to work with businesses to promote voluntary compliance and assist in understanding federal regulations.

Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, said in testimony before a Senate worker safety panel that the budget shifts are reflective of the Bush administration's attitude toward workplace regulation. She said the Bush administration has "[r]epeatedly favored voluntary compliance over enforcement and programs directed at employers over those for workers."

Although Seminario recognizes the problems associated with resource constraints, the real problem, she says, has been in OSHA's management. In the area of enforcement, Seminario points out Bush's OSHA, unlike previous administrations, "hasn't had high-profile focused initiatives on major hazards." As a result, "There is no sense of overall presence," she adds.

Outlook
Even if a new administration chooses to make worker safety a priority and revitalize OSHA management, resource constraints will still present a challenge. Considering nearly three decades of budget and staffing cuts and sharp declines in the number of workplace inspections, future administrators, however well intentioned, will have difficulty jump-starting progress in improving workplace safety.

Moreover, federal funding is an important signal of our priorities as a nation. The inability of multiple presidents and congresses to consistently fund OSHA at the levels necessary to keep up with emerging hazards and a growing workforce sends the wrong message to the American people — that their safety at work is not a priority.

Endnotes:
All data for fiscal years 1980-2006 are from the Budget of the U.S. Government appendices, fiscal years 1982-2008. These volumes are the president's request to Congress and contain final budget numbers and program data from two fiscal years prior. Budget data for fiscal years 2007-2008 comes from final versions of appropriations bills passed by Congress and signed by the president (H.J. Res. 20 and H.R. 2764, respectively).

1 Fatality data and workforce size data are taken from Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, AFL-CIO, April 2007. Available at: aflcio.org/issues/safety/memorial/doj_2007.cfm