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Inspector General Auditing OSHA’s Response to Safety Complaints

Aug. 25, 2020, 6:23 PM

The U.S. Labor Department’s inspector general is reviewing OSHA’s responsiveness to thousands of workplace safety complaints over the last five years.

The audit’s goal is to determine if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “ensured complaints and referrals were adequately addressed,” according to an Aug. 24 letter to the agency from Elliott Lewis, the assistant inspector general for audit.

OSHA’s ability to handle complaint and referral cases has been a concern since 2015 when the agency began requiring employers to notify it when a worker was hospitalized or suffered an amputation or eye loss. Referral inspections are often prompted by injuries or hospitalizations reported to OSHA by employers or other agencies such as building departments.

In that first year, OSHA received 10,388 notifications from employers and area offices had to decide which cases warranted those inspections. About 33% of the referrals resulted in inspections, while the remainder where handled by telephone calls or letters between OSHA and employers.

OSHA conducted 14,109 complaint or referral inspections in fiscal 2019, representing 42% of the year’s 33,393 inspections, according to agency records.

A complaint inspection review was highlighted in the inspector general’s fiscal 2020 workplan, which noted “inspectors are not required to interview complainants at any point during the inspection process, which could result in OSHA having little interaction with complainants and witnesses during complaint inspections.”

The newly announced audit comes as the IG is already reviewing OSHA’s coronavirus guidance documents and enforcement of silica protection regulations.

Thousands of Complaints

The initial review is being handled by an outside auditing firm, The Lopez Group L.L.P., based in Temecula, Calif.

Specific attention will paid on the effect of Covid-19 on the handling of complaint-based inspections, Lopez Group Senior Partner Richard Lopez said in an Aug. 20 agency document request.

OSHA records show that as of Aug. 16, the agency had 10,911 open coronavirus-related complaint cases and had closed 20,177 complaints.

The review of all complaint and referral inspections will examine OSHA’s process for conducting interviews with workers who filed complaints and with OSHA’s handling of worker interviews and testimony, Lopez told OSHA. Auditors also will examine if inspections led to “timely abatement” of hazards and whether workers were removed from the dangerous conditions.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com