Confounding Expectations, OSHA Enforcement in the Trump Administration Is On the Rise

By Eric J. Conn and Beeta B. Lashkari

Based on the rhetoric from the 2016 presidential campaign trail, it was reasonable for Industry to anticipate OSHA enforcement under a Trump Administration to contract significantly from the aggressive enforcement model employed by Pres. Obama’s OSHA.  Informed by the enforcement philosophies of past Republican administrations, the expectation was that a Pres. Trump / Sec. Acosta OSHA would scale back enforcement, favor compliance assistance, slash OSHA’s budget and staff to limit enforcement, retire national and local emphasis enforcement programs, revise enforcement policies that inflate civil penalties, and otherwise retool its approach to ease the regulatory burden on employers.

The reality, however, is that OSHA during the Trump-era has not backed down from its enforcement mission.  Quite to the contrary, relevant enforcement data reveals enforcement creep.  With still no Trump-appointed Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA in place nearly two years into the Trump Administration, career OSHA staff have considerable influence over the direction OSHA is steering, and that is why little has changed, and why change may not be on the near horizon.

Here are some of the key ways that OSHA enforcement is hardly distinguishable two years into the Trump Administration from OSHA during the Obama Administration:

  • OSHA’s FY19 budget is increasing by $5M from the end of the Obama-era (nearly $560M total)
  • The number of employees at OSHA dipped at the start of the Trump Administration, but it has restored to roughly the same as the end of the Obama-era (approx. 2,000)

  • The number of National and Local Emphasis Enforcement Programs remains essentially the same (approx. 150 Local/Regional Emphasis Programs and 9 National Emphasis Programs), including new or retooled NEPs for petroleum refineries and trenching
  • The total number of fed OSHA inspections actually increased from 31,948 in FY2016 to 32,396 in FY2017 (the first year over year increase in the number of inspections in nearly a decade)

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Expect More Comprehensive OSHA Inspections Under a New “Enforcement Weighting System”

By Amanda R. Strainis-Walker and Eric J. Conn

Over the course of the next year, employers can expect to see longer, more comprehensive OSHA inspections that focus on complex safety and health hazards. This change is associated with OSHA’s new enforcement protocol it refers to as the “Enforcement Weighting System” that uses a new metric called the “Enforcement Unit.”

Historically, OSHA operated under the assumption that more inspections are better. OSHA’s philosophy was that the more workplaces that OSHA is able to inspected, the greater the impact OSHA would have on safety and health, and the more employees it would be able to protect. At the end of every year, the national office would produce data and graphs showing the number of inspections, and gave no consideration for the different types of inspections or the range of complexity of the issues faced in each inspection. It was the classic quota protocol with the classic weaknesses that quota cause – driving enforcement to the simplest, quickest hitting inspections available.

A traditional inspection at a small construction site can last as little as a couple of hours with only one compliance officer, whereas a wall-to-wall inspection at a petrochemical manufacturing plant could last days, if not months, requiring multiple compliance officers and specialists. Under OSHA’s historical tracking system, both of those types of inspections were counted as the same unit of Inspection Weighting 2measure – one inspection. To account for this wide variation in resources that inspections can consume, in personnel and man hours, OSHA has adopted the new Enforcement Weighting System.

The new tracking system kicked in at the start of the new federal fiscal year. OSHA piloted the system over the two previous fiscal years. At the core of the new Enforcement Weighting System is the introduction of a new unit of measure for inspections – the Enforcement Unit. Different types of inspections are assigned a different number of Enforcement Units. For example, the simple, small construction site inspection would be assigned a single Enforcement Unit, whereas the wall to wall chemical facility inspection would receive seven Enforcement Units.

Enforcement Units will be the new metric that OSHA’s national office evaluates at the end of the fiscal year and tracks from year-to-year to evaluate enforcement performance of its various regions and area offices.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, Dr. David Michaels, explained in the Memorandum announcing the Enforcement Weighting System:

While [the old] metric served a useful purpose, it penalized those field managers that took on more complex inspections that require a great amount of CSHO effort.

The new Enforcement Weighting System is designed to Continue reading