Workplace safety inspections suspended during shutdown

The majority of workplace safety investigations ground to a halt beginning Oct. 1, 2013, because of the federal government shutdown of all but essential operations.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) furloughed more than 90 percent of its personnel and suspended most of its operations, according to OSHA’s Shutdown Contingency Plan, which was approved by the Department of Labor on Sept. 16.

In the plan, OSHA Administrator David Michaels indicated that the agency would cease most enforcement activities except for responses to fatalities, catastrophes and complaints about life-threatening work conditions.

“OSHA employees should be able to respond to safety and health complaints when employees are exposed to hazardous conditions that present a high risk of death or serious physical harm,” Michaels said.

OSHA’s workforce has been cut from 2,235 personnel down to 230. The agency is maintaining small staffs at the national office and each of OSHA’s 10 regional offices, as well as keeping two compliance officers (one safety and one health) on duty at each of OSHA’s 92 area offices across the country.

Aside from inspections, activities that will be curtailed are outreach, consultation and preparations for rulemaking.

Other government agencies that focus on workplace safety and health have also been affected by the shutdown.

The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, the independent body of judges who hear and rule on challenges to OSHA citations, has retained only two employees to maintain its computer network and to receive mail, according to its contingency plan.

Most of the research being done at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been halted.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which investigates incidents at chemical facilities, has kept just three of its 40 employees and three board members active.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has kept 768 workers on board to inspect targeted mines that have been prioritized based on safety history, specific hazards “which have been recent key causes of death and serious injury” and miners’ complaints that “would significantly compromise the safety of human life” in the nation’s mines.

“Notably, the federal government’s shutdown will not immediately impact nonfederal employees in the 21 states where OSHA has approved state-run occupational safety and health programs,” said Eric Conn, head of the OSHA practice group at Epstein, Becker, Green’s Washington, D.C., office. “In these state-plan states, normal day-to-day activities should continue as usual.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

© 2013, Society for Human Resource Management.

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