June 9, 2022

Report Describes Significant Enforcement, Data Challenges Facing OSHA

OSHA faces significant challenges in both the agency’s efforts to enforce workplace safety and health standards and in collecting injury and illness data that is used to target inspections, according to a report issued on May 25 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report specifically highlights the challenges OSHA faced related to implementation of the two emergency temporary standards it issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO states that it conducted this study due to concerns about OSHA’s crisis preparedness arising from its efforts to protect workers from COVID-19. GAO’s report examines the agency’s enforcement actions related to the pandemic, its development and use of standards, and efforts to obtain illness and injury data.

The report notes that from February 2020 through June 2021, OSHA responded to the pandemic mainly through enforcing its existing applicable standards, such as those related to respiratory protection, and its general duty clause, which can be applied for hazards that lack specific standards when certain criteria are met. But GAO found that OSHA inspectors experienced difficulties with both strategies, in part because citing general duty clause violations requires significant documentation.

In 2021, OSHA issued two emergency temporary standards intended to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic: one covering healthcare employees treating COVID-19 patients and one that required large employers to implement COVID-19 vaccination and testing plans. Both standards have been entirely or partially withdrawn, with only the recordkeeping portions of the healthcare standard remaining in effect. The report explains that OSHA is currently engaged in the rulemaking process for a permanent infectious disease standard that has been in development since 2010. GAO explains that the agency’s standard-setting process is lengthy, citing previous GAO reporting that found that “it took OSHA more than 7 years, on average, to develop and issue a new standard.”

GAO also identified obstacles to OSHA’s data collection efforts. Between 2016 and 2018, GAO estimates that employers for more than 50 percent of establishments did not report required injury and illness data. The GAO study also found that OSHA issued significantly fewer citations for recordkeeping violations after a 2012 court decision that limited the time period in which OSHA was allowed to cite these violations, and that the agency has few procedures for encouraging compliance and penalizing noncompliance to recordkeeping requirements. GAO’s report explains that these challenges are significant because OSHA uses injury and illness data to target inspections.

To address these issues, GAO reiterates recommendations it issued in January and October 2021 for OSHA to evaluate its data reporting procedures and assess challenges related to its COVID-19 response efforts.

For more information and to download a PDF of the report, visit GAO’s webpage.

Related: In a report published in February 2021, GAO urged OSHA to take action to improve injury and illness data reporting.