There’s an eye-opening story unfolding in Indiana, where a federal investigation into the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration found severe problems.
According to the report, Indiana OSHA failed to investigate an explosion at a utility that occurred only seven months after another explosion that killed one worker and injured another. At the time of the second explosion, Indiana OSHA was negotiating a settlement about the first. The report said, “Failure to investigate the report of the explosion gives the appearance that settlement of the case was a priority over employee safety and health.”
The report also criticized a decision by Indiana OSHA not to inspect a flavoring plant where an employee suffered an electrical shock and was hospitalized.
A former assistant regional administrator for federal OSHA called the report “scathing” and noted that Indiana OSHA has also been mishandling whistleblower cases. The federal investigation found that workers that brought workplace dangers to the attention of the state agency weren’t told about their right to appeal, were often told to accept an employer’s settlement or Indiana OSHA would drop the case, or would have their case dismissed when the agency allowed employers to stall until the 60-day investigation window was shut.
These allegations are serious and raise concerns about how occupational safety is often not a real priority in budgets and in practice. Only about half of the states have their own OSHA programs—with federal OSHA picking up 50 percent of the costs—but continued state and federal budget cuts have shrunk these programs. Overall, OSHA had fewer health and safety inspectors in 2011 than it did in 1981, even though the number of workplaces in the U.S. has doubled in that span of time. Federal OSHA inspectors—at current staffing and workloads—would need 131 years to inspect every workplace in America just one time.
In Indiana, there is a backlog of nearly 100 complaints that haven’t been processed, with some up to six weeks old. And, while Indiana OSHA says that they’ve addressed all but two of the 22 OSHA recommendation in the report, they also say, “all recommendations outlined in the report apply to administrative procedures, and they have no effect on the health and safety of Hoosiers.”
But, given they refused to investigate an explosion at a utility that had one just seven months before and the tact they’ve taken with whistleblowers, it’s safe to say their definition of “no effect” is probably different from that of workers.