While trying to combat a troublesome trend in Ohio of rising deaths on the job, the resources of federal work safety investigators are more strained than ever, said Cincinnati Area OSHA Director Bill Wilkerson.
A seventh person has now died this year (the federal budget year begins in October) in the region overseen by OSHA’s Cincinnati office after a 70-year-old man was killed Tuesday in a piece of equipment at Art’s Rental Equipment in Sharonville.
In this midst of this latest tragedy, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is spending more time responding to accidents than focusing on prevention, Wilkerson said. Due to new reporting requirements in effect since Jan. 1, companies nationwide must now notify OSHA within 24 hours of any amputations, workers hospitalized overnight or loss of an eye.
Previously, employers only had to report all work-related fatalities and hospitalizations of three or more employees, according to the federal government agency.
Despite the changes, funding and staffing levels haven’t changed, Wilkerson said.
“We have been inundated,” he said.
His staff is in a bind. Investigating the most serious, but non-fatal accidents can get OSHA in the door of a local business and correct problems to help prevent more accidents or even deadly accidents in the future, Wilkerson said.
However, OSHA is not intended to only respond to accidents, he said.
“It’s putting a strain on our resources and the ability to do a thorough investigation (when an accident occurs). We’re keeping up with it, but it’s tough,” he said.
By spending more time responding to accidents, OSHA is spending less time on planned inspections of companies with dangerous track records, educational programming or checking out employee-reported complaints. There are also government programs focused on improving safety rates in certain work processes, such as reducing fall hazards, that would lead OSHA to visit a business and review their safety practices, Wilkerson said.
“I can only speak for the experience of this office… but I think we’re pretty typical. We’re finding it difficult to do these other types of investigations which are really designed to be more preventive,” he said.
Historically, OSHA has relied on voluntary compliance for companies to correct safety hazards due to built-in incentives like keeping injury rates and insurance costs low, Wilkerson. Amputations and other serious accidents are calculated as part of a work site accident rate that, if it goes high enough, is like sending an invitation for OSHA to visit. Injury rates also affect a company’s workers’ compensation insurance premiums.
Wilkerson previously told this newspaper that he and other OSHA directors in Ohio have seen an uptick in recent years in the number of work-related deaths.
An Ohio worker is dying on the job almost every week, he said.
Last year, OSHA investigated 46 fatal work accidents statewide, down from 48 in 2012, but a major increase from 38 work-related deaths in 2011, Wilkerson said. He and other directors from Columbus, Cleveland and Toledo compiled the numbers, and are now trying to reverse the trend by raising awareness of what they view to be a problem.
Reasons cited by OSHA for the rise in worker deaths include a lack of attention paid to safe work practices and training, as well as a younger and newer workforce in manufacturing and construction.
“The companies are driving costs down,” said Matt Von Stein, president and membership development director of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 648, with offices in Liberty Twp.
“Where are they going to start cutting corners when you drive that low on costs? Safety’s one of the first things you can cut out,” Von Stein said.
Local 648 has about 600 electrician members including retirees in Butler and Warren counties. The union has work agreements with 30 area contractors, mostly construction companies.
Reducing fatal accidents to zero “takes a lot from the owners of companies and from the workers because I’ve been on the job sites. We all get busy. You want to get the job done, you’re in a rush, sometimes safety, you’re not worried about it,” Von Stein said.
“I want OSHA beefed up,” he said.
Adjusted for inflation and pegged to 2012 dollars, OSHA’s budget nationally actually declined from $554 million in 2004 to an estimated $529 million last budget year, according to Center for Effective Government.
OSHA staff for the Cincinnati-area office enforces worker safety in the Cincinnati, Dayton and Springfield metropolitan areas.