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Data shows high fatality numbers parallel fewer OSHA inspections

Workplace fatality investigations are at decade-high levels just as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration now has on staff the lowest number of health safety inspectors — 875 in 2019 — in the agency’s 48-year history, an analysis of recent government data released Thursday by the National Employment Law Project revealed.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit culled U.S. Department of Labor fatality data since 2008, showing the second-highest 10-year figure of 929 workplace deaths in 2018, and 2016-2018 drops in enforcement units assigned for various types of inspections, including 520 fewer inspecting “significant cases” that would produce high penalties, among other findings.

“The latest data from OSHA is very alarming,” Debbie Berkowitz, NELP’s program director for worker health and safety, and a former senior official with OSHA, said in a statement. “We’re seeing huge red flags in the continued drop in enforcement and staffing at OSHA, while the number of workplace fatality investigations is at a decade high. That’s a clear indication that workplace deaths are on the rise.”

In 2016, the last full year of the Obama administration, OSHA reported a total of 42,900 enforcement units as their measure of enforcement activity. In 2018, that figure went down to approximately 41,500 enforcement units. The agency’s reduction in enforcement is largely the result of cutbacks in the number of complicated, high-impact safety and health inspections.

The report highlights OSHA’s data, revealing that the agency in 2018 conducted one-third the number of inspections involving hazards causing musculoskeletal disorders, even though these painful and often crippling conditions are the No. 1 work-related illness in the country. It also reduced by half the number of inspections regarding heat stress, even though last year was one of the hottest years on record, the report highlights.

Also reduced by one-third were the number of inspections where investigators measure individual workers’ levels of chemicals and other toxic agents.

“The Trump administration is cutting back on OSHA enforcement activity, putting workers’ lives at risk and undercutting businesses that play by the rules and prioritize worker safety,” Ms. Berkowitz said in the statement.

The Trump administration as of Thursday did not comment on the report.