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Feds probing Indiana's workplace safety agency

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The federal government's workplace safety agency is investigating its Indiana counterpart—a department that documents indicate is trying to boost its inspections without hiring new staffers.

The Indianapolis Star, which obtained those documents, reported that they show the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently began requiring experienced inspectors to conduct 61 inspections annually and to complete those inspections within an average of 4.1 days.

Some IOSHA employees have told the newspaper they believe the department's new inspection strategy will discourage complex workplace probes and also endanger workers and that the push was prompted by media criticism about the number of inspections Indiana performs.

A regional spokesman for the federal OSHA, Scott Allen, said Thursday that the agency has opened an investigation of IOSHA but declined to comment on the nature of the probe. He said such investigations are a routine part of the agency's oversight of state workplace safety agencies.

Bob Dittmer, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Labor, which includes IOSHA, said the federal investigation arose from four to six complaints filed with federal regulators. He said the federal investigation will be completed this week, and a report will be issued by the federal agency sometime next week.

"We cannot speculate on the issues or complaints. We have not been provided copies of the complaints," Dittmer said in an emailed statement.

IOSHA's new inspection quotas worry some agency employees, who say the new expectations will lead to artificially inflated inspection numbers and discourage involved investigations.

The Star reported in August that it took IOSHA nearly six months to complete an inspection of a Sensient Flavors plants in Indianapolis where federal health officials found that nearly a third of the flavoring plant's 100 production workers had abnormally restrictive lung function.

That inspection took months because of the complex nature of air sampling and legal wrangling with the company, which tried unsuccessfully to block the inspection in court.

Such months-long investigations could become a thing of the past under IOSHA's new requirements, which are outlined in performance appraisal reports the Indiana Department of Labor uses to evaluate its employees.

That's because the new quotas require inspections to be completed within four days, while it can take days or weeks to get sampling results back from labs.

Agency employees told the Star that will force them to choose between meeting quotas to get raises and keeping workers safe.

The new requirements also encourage inspectors to identify an average of two to three serious, knowing or repeat violations per inspection, according to documents obtained by the Star. Those violations bring the highest fines.

Federal data show that Indiana OSHA conducted 1,332 inspections last year—the fewest since the state received federal approval to operate its own worker safety program in 1986. The number of inspections has fallen dramatically since the late 1980s, when IOSHA performed 5,000 to 8,000 inspections a year.

Indiana's new labor commissioner, Sean Keefer, has promised 2,000 inspections this year, even while the agency steadfastly refuses to boost its staffing.

Although the federal government requires Indiana to have at least 70 inspectors, the state has only about 40, according to the most recent federal review. State officials have argued their staffing levels are adequate and have petitioned OSHA to reduce the 70-inspector benchmark.

The new quotas raise some serious questions in light of the agency's low staffing levels, said Frank Rosenthal, an associate professor of occupational and environmental health sciences at Purdue University.

He said it's not in the best interest of workers or employers if inspectors are rushing to satisfy a quota.

"If more inspections are needed, the answer is not a quota system, but rather to hire more inspectors and give them the resources they need to do their work," he said.

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