Workplace inspections by OSHA have rebounded from a year ago but still lag behind their pre-pandemic levels, agency inspection data show.
Across all industries in June 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted 2,452 inspections, up 47% from the 1,672 inspections in June 2020, but 16% below the 2,915 inspections in June 2019, agency enforcement records show.
The June numbers signal OSHA’s return to inspecting more worksites as the agency lifted some Covid-19 protective restrictions on inspectors and the deluge of complaints in 2020 slowed. For example, in June 2020, the agency received 1,339 complaints related to Covid-19 while in June 2021, there were just 83 Covid-related complaints.
Federal OSHA is responsible for inspections of private employers in 28 states, including Texas and New York, and on most federal facilities. The other 22 states, including California and Michigan, conduct their own inspections of private employers and aren’t included in the federal regulator’s count.
OSHA declined interview requests to discuss inspections, but provided data requested by Bloomberg Law.
Inspections trailed 2019 levels because of low staffing as well, said Melanie Paul, a principal with Jackson Lewis P.C. in Atlanta and co-leader of the firm’s workplace safety and health practice group.
As of April, OSHA had 748 inspectors, among the lowest counts ever, compared with 860 at the close of fiscal year 2014, according to the agency. It is aiming to add about 240 inspector positions by the end of fiscal year 2022 if Biden administration spending plans are approved by Congress.
Construction Still Dominates
As usual, construction inspections accounted for about half of the agency’s inspections.
In June 2021, there were 1,316 construction inspections, 54% of the month’s site checks. That total is up 41% from a year ago when there were 935 inspections, but 27% below the 1,680 inspections in June 2019.
Paul said it’s not surprising construction inspections remained high because building continued through the pandemic and inspectors can launch an inspection by driving by a site to spot a possible violation.
The number of OSHA health-care inspections, though, rose from 2019 to 2021.
The 92 health-care inspections in June 2021 was 163% more than the 35 checks in June 2019. However, the 2021 health-care numbers trailed June 2020 by 25% when there were 123 inspections as OSHA staff responded to hundreds of complaints and employee hospitalization and fatality reports.
Paul said the agency’s new Covid-19 emergency temporary standard for health care, which became enforceable on July 6, and the Covid-19 national emphasis program initiated in March will continue to result in OSHA inspecting health-care facilities at numbers above pre-pandemic levels.
June 2021 inspection numbers exceeded pre-pandemic levels among some industry groups where inspections are often driven by worker complaints.
Wholesalers and retail stores had 190 inspections in June 2021, 9% higher than the 175 in June 2019 and a 164% boost over the 72 inspections in June 2020. For example, in June 2021, OSHA opened inspections of three Walmart stores and three Family Dollar stores, all prompted by employee complaints or information from other agencies or the store.
Warehouse and transportation inspections also were up—106 in June 2021, a 20% increase over 72 inspections in 2019. There were only 48 inspections in warehouse and transportation in June 2020.
Employers in 2021 are likely to see inspectors arrive in person, rather than meeting them on a video call, which became standard practice in 2020 because of the pandemic.
“If it’s in-person, it makes a world of difference,” said Anthony Tilton, a shareholder with Ausley McMullen in Tallahassee, Fla., who frequently represents construction companies.
Except for Covid-19-related inspections, OSHA doesn’t track whether inspections involve virtual contacts with employers. Agency data showed that 3% of the 115 Covid-19 inspections in June 2021 were done “fully remote” while in June 2020, 64% of the 218 Covid-19 inspections didn’t include an in-person inspection.
“When inspectors are not at the site, they are a lot more limited,” Tilton said. An inspector on site can do a walkaround check that may turn up issues other than the concerns that prompted the inspection.
Bill Wahoff, a member with Steptoe & Johnson PLLC in Columbus, Ohio, said he’s seeing more hybrid inspections involving in-person initial visits and follow-up interviews done remotely.
“I don’t think it’s back to where it was and I don’t think it will return to that because there is more of a willingness by management and OSHA to make interviews virtual,” Wahoff said.