October 12, 2023

Government Report Faults OSHA’s Efforts to Protect Warehouse Workers

A review of OSHA’s efforts to address high injury and illness rates at warehouses before and during the COVID-19 pandemic criticizes the agency for not conducting enough inspections and not collecting enough data. The review was initiated by the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which presented its findings to OSHA in a public report available from the OIG website.

OIG analyzed relevant data for the period from Oct. 1, 2016, through Dec. 31, 2021. The report notes that the sharp rise in online shopping during the pandemic led to increased pressure on warehouse workers to meet production quotas. In 2021, warehouse employees suffered injuries and illnesses at a rate of 5.5 per 100 employees, which was twice the national rate for all industries. But OSHA inspected only 4.1 percent of warehouses in the United States, and most of those inspections were prompted by complaints.

Under-reporting from employers limited the amount of injuries and illness data available to OSHA. From 2016 through 2020, 59 percent of establishments in all industries did not submit their annual Form 300A reports to the agency, according to the report. For the warehouse industry, 16 percent of traditional establishments and 46 percent of online retailers failed to comply with recordkeeping requirements. In OIG’s judgment, the data that OSHA did collect was not detailed enough for the agency to identify trends or determine where serious injuries were likely to occur.

OIG contends that OSHA’s efforts to address musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) were hampered by a misunderstanding of the fate of its 2000 Ergonomics Program Final Rule, which was overturned by a joint resolution of Congress in 2001. According to the report, OSHA has claimed that the Congressional Review Act prevents the agency from initiating rulemaking specific to ergonomics, but the text of the act states only that a rule cannot be reissued in substantially the same form. “OSHA misinterprets this determination to mean it cannot regulate in the area covered by the disapproved rule,” the report states.

OSHA’s response to OIG’s findings, which is included as an appendix to the report, argue that industry-wide injury rates are a “limiting lens” through which to judge the agency’s enforcement efforts. Other factors that determine the allocation of enforcement resources include the seriousness of injuries and legal limitations, OSHA notes. OIG also did not consider the need for frequent inspections in relatively low-injury workplaces like those in the petrochemical industry, which nevertheless possesses high potential for catastrophic events, according to OSHA.

The OIG report is available as a PDF download.