Federal audit knocks state’s safety, health program

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A federal audit of Indiana’s Occupational Safety and Health program raises serious concerns about a shortage of funding and staffing necessary to properly enforce workplace safety standards.

The newly released report by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is part of a broader study of each state’s enforcement activities, compiled in response to a 2009 federal law.

A lack of state funding support and proper infrastructure raises questions about Indiana’s ability to effectively address deficiencies in its enforcement program, the report said.

“Increased federal oversight and technical assistance may be needed to improve Indiana’s performance,” it suggested.

Details of the audit, released Wednesday, were first reported by Indiana Legislative Insight.

State funding for Indiana’s Occupational Safety and Health program has increased less than 1 percent per year over the past 20 years, the report said. Moreover, in fiscal 2009, the state’s Department of Labor, which oversees the program, absorbed a 10-percent cut in its biennial budget.

Meeting benchmark enforcement staffing levels also remains an issue. Just 23 of 47 safety positions in the state are filled, in addition to only 18 of 23 health positions.

Yet, the report found the state agency has retained a “fairly” experienced staff. Nearly half of its compliance officers have at least 10 years of experience.

Overall, the federal audit, conducted from Oct. 1, 2008, to Sept. 30, 2009, made 45 recommendations, the majority of which involved record keeping and documentation, as well as use of federal management reports.

Indiana Department of Labor spokesman Marc Lotter declined to comment on the federal audit and instead directed questions to a rebuttal letter written by DOL Commissioner Lori Torres.   

Torres said her department has identified areas for improvement, including follow-up inspection scheduling, construction inspection targeting and additional whistleblower training programs.

“We believe we have been marching in the right direction, and that we will continue to deliver the type of service that our Indiana workers and their families have a right to expect,” she said.

In fiscal 2009, the state’s DOL reported 123 fatalities resulting from injuries suffered on the job, the lowest number since the state began tracking workplace deaths in 1991, and 20 fewer than the previous fiscal year.

Indiana issued 2,614 citations for violations in fiscal 2009, with more than half classified as serious. The average fine for a serious penalty in Indiana was $1,271, slightly lower than the national average of $1,335.

Among the key findings in the federal report:

* State compliance officers are trained at the OSHA Training Institute, but few have taken anything beyond the basic core courses.

* State compliance officers and some supervisors work largely from home or alternate locations.

* In two cases of fatalities, no follow-up inspections were conducted to assure the violations had been abated.

* Victims’ families are notified by letter of the initiation of an investigation and of its findings. The letters are not maintained in the case file, and it does not appear that copies of citations are provided to the families.

* Some serious violations are classified as “other-than-serious.” Repeat violations were not cited as such.

* Reasons for penalty reductions were not documented. The state offers a 30-percent penalty reduction if a company agrees to additional training.

“While there are issues that need to be addressed, Indiana continues to work in a positive manner to improve their program,” the report said.

And, as Torres said in her letter: “Indiana met all of its strategic goals for [fiscal year] 2009, including the most important measure of reducing injuries and fatalities to Indiana workers.”

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