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OSHA Inspections Drop
To Record Lows - Again!

UE News, January 1997

For the second year in a row, the number of federal OSHA inspections and the number of violations cited plummeted to record lows, according to federal OSHA data released recently.

In fiscal year 1996 (Oct. 1, 1995 to Sept. 30, 1996), the number of federal OSHA inspections fell to 24,024, down 17.5 percent from the previous record low in fiscal year 1995. Before last year, the lowest number of inspections conducted by OSHA was in 1972, the first year of OSHA operations.

Even more dramatic was the sharp drop in violations cited by OSHA inspectors. Nationwide, they cited only 55,093 violations in 1996, a drop of 39 percent from the record low number of 90,555 violations cited in 1995. The number of willful violations they cited fell by 14 percent in 1996, and the number of serious violations by 40 percent.

And of course, with inspections and violations down, penalties for employers also dropped. Federal OSHA assessed $66.8 million in fines for violations cited in 1996, a drop of 23.4 percent from the $87.2 million assessed in 1995. This was not a record low, but only the lowest value since 1990.

As a result of the sharp drop in OSHA enforcement activity in 1995, the two-year period of 1995 and 1996 represents the most drastic curtailment of federal OSHA enforcement in its 25-history. Since the Gingrich Republican Congress was elected in November 1994, OSHA’s record showed the following declines:


Enforcement Category

Percent Drop FY 1994-1996

No. of Inspections Down 43%
Total Violations
  • Serious Violations

  • Wilful Violations

  • Repeat Violations

Down 62%

Down 65%

Down 39%

Down 51%

Total Penalties Down 44%



This is an abysmal enforcement record. For years, Labor Secretary Robert Reich has emphasized the importance of OSHA having a "credible" enforcement capability. OSHA’s enforcement record for the last two years was not "credible," it was a cave-in to corporations.

In an interview published in December, OSHA Dir. Joseph Dear said, "The idea of enforcement is to impose serious consequences for serious violations." The deeds don’t fit his words. Citations for serious violations fell by 65 percent in the last two years. For the remaining serious violations, fines went up from $822 per violation to $928 in 1996, a mere 13 percent increase. In real dollars (that is, taking inflation into account), this amounts to a six percent increase in the fine per serious violation! Serious consequences for serious violations? Who’s OSHA kidding?

As 1997 begins, both Reich and Dear are gone from the federal government. (Both resigned in December.) President Clinton has appointed Alexis Herman to replace Reich as Labor Secretary, and the search is on for a replacement to Dear, who returned to a post in the state of Washington. (Gregory Watchman, formerly a deputy assistant Labor Secretary for OSHA, has been named acting administrator.) Labor unions and our allies will obviously campaign strenuously for an OSHA director who will protect the agency from its Congressional enemies and rebuild its enforcement efforts.

But as pointed out in this column before, OSHA’s toothless enforcement policies and its emphasis on cooperation with management comes from the top. So UE members can harbor few illusions about the immediate likelihood for success in redirecting OSHA.

What we can do is what we have always strived to do — focus our main attention at our place of greatest strength, on the shop floor in our locals. Make real changes in our working conditions by our own efforts, and in alliance with our closest allies, other working men and women. Don’t look to OSHA or any other agency to bail us out. And when our efforts do succeed, you can be sure that Washington will hear the rumble. Suddenly the President, whoever he or she is, will decide to get OSHA "back on track" again and defend the rights of working people.

We need to make the ground rumble a bit under our feet. When it does, be assured the President and corporate America will hear us and respond.

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