OSHA's Complaint Response Policies:

OSHA Credits Its Complaint System with Conserving Agency Resources, but the System Still Warrants Improvement

GAO-04-658: Published: Jun 18, 2004. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 2004.

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Each year, OSHA receives thousands of complaints from employees alleging hazardous conditions at their worksites. How OSHA responds to these complaints--either by inspecting the worksite or through some other means--has important implications for both the agency's resources and worker safety and health. Responding to invalid or erroneous complaints would deplete inspection resources that could be used to inspect or investigate other worksites. Not responding to complaints that warrant action runs counter to the agency's mission to protect worker safety and health. Considering OSHA's limited resources, and the importance of worker safety, GAO was asked: (1) What is OSHA's current policy for responding to complaints in a way that conserves its resources, (2) how consistently is OSHA responding to complaints, and (3) to what extent have complaints led OSHA to identify serious hazards?

In general, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) responds to complaints according to the seriousness of the alleged hazard, a practice that agency officials say conserves inspection resources. OSHA officials usually conduct on-site inspections for alleged hazards that could result in death or serious injury. For less serious hazards, OSHA officials generally investigate by phoning employers and faxing them a description of the alleged hazard. Employers are directed to provide the agency with proof of the complaint's resolution. OSHA officials said the availability of both options allows them to manage resources more effectively when responding to complaints. However, many agency officials we interviewed said some complainants provide erroneous information about the alleged hazard, which can affect the agency's determination of the hazard's severity. For example, some complainants lack the expertise to know what is truly hazardous and, as a result, file complaints that overstate the nature of the hazard. Others, particularly disgruntled ex-employees, may have ulterior motives when filing complaints and misrepresent the nature of the hazard. In the 42 area offices where we conducted interviews (there are 80 area offices), OSHA officials described practices for responding to complaints that varied considerably. For example, the degree to which supervisors participated in decisions about which complaints would result in inspections and which would not varied across offices. While OSHA requires annual audits that would identify the extent to which its area offices are correctly employing the complaint policies, some regions are not conducting these audits, and agency officials have told us that OSHA does not have a mechanism in place to address agencywide problems. To some extent complaints direct inspection resources where there are serious hazards. At half the worksites OSHA inspected in response to complaints, compliance officers found serious violations--those that posed a substantial probability of injury or death, according to OSHA's own data for fiscal years 2000-2001.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to instruct area offices to pursue practices to improve the quality of information they receive from complainants, such as reminding complainants of the penalties for providing false information, conducting outreach to employees regarding hazards, and encouraging employers to have safety committees that could initially address complaints.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We recommended that the Department of Labor take steps to improve the quality of information they receive from complainants. This could include such actions as reminding complainants of the penalties for providing false information, conducting outreach to employees regarding hazards, and encouraging employers to have safety committees that could initially address complaints. According to the Director of Enforcement, in response to our recommendation, the agency made the warning on the complaint form regarding false complaints more prominent http://www.osha.gov/pls/osha7/eComplaintForm.html.) The agency also added a new web page that allowed employees to educate themselves about hazards using a pull down menu for various types of hazards. (http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/index.html). According to the Director, this page was added after our report. In their update to our recommendations, the agency said they encourage the formation of safety committees

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to take steps to ensure that area offices are consistently implementing the agency's policies and procedures for handling complaints. As a first step, the agency should update and revise the 1996 directive.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OSHA revised its Complaint Policies and Procedures Directive and published it in June 2006.

    Recommendation: In revising the directive, the Secretary of Labor should update and clarify who evaluates complaints.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the revised directive, Labor clarified who could evaluate complaints by specifying that an Area Director's designee could do so.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to develop a system for ensuring the regions complete audits.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OSHA instruction EAA 01-00-03, which revises instructions in EAA 01-00-002, contains steps for ensuring that regions complete audits. According to OSHA, during FY 2006 and the first eleven (11) months of FY 2007, forty-five (45) comprehensive, on-site audits of field offices have been conducted covering approximately half of OSHA's area offices. In accordance with Paragraph X.C.4 of the field audit directive, a summary report for each audit has been submitted to OSHA's Director of Evaluation and Analysis for National Office review, within 30 days of completion, and copies of the full audit reports and responses are maintained by the OSHA Regional Office.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to develop a system for using the audit results to improve consistency of the complaint process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a way to improve the consistency of the complaint process, all audits will address penalty determination and processes for abating violation. Checklists developed for identifying audit topics include items related to the complaint process.

    Recommendation: In revising the directive, the Secretary of Labor should update and clarify how complainants are advised of the process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to OSHA, it has procedures for advising claimants of the complaint process that follow from the way the complaint is filed. If the information is submitted via telephone, the agency will describe the complaint process, and if appropriate, the concepts of "inquiry" and "inspection," as well as the relative advantages of each. If the complaint is filed via the Internet, there is a page devoted to The Federal OSHA Complaint Handling Process available via the Workers section.

    Recommendation: In revising the directive, the Secretary of Labor should update and clarify how written and signed complaints are evaluated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Although Labor revised the directive, the new directive did not address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In revising the directive, the Secretary of Labor should update and clarify how to verify the employment status of complainants.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Although Labor revised the directive, the new directive did not address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In revising the directive, the Secretary of Labor should update and clarify how to treat e-mail complaints.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The revised direction contains a section entitled "Electronic Complaints Received via the OSHA Public Website," which updates and clarifies how electronic complaints are handled.

    Recommendation: In revising the directive, the Secretary of Labor should update and clarify how to address complaints involving hazards for which the agency has no specific standard.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Although Labor revised the directive, the new directive did not address this recommendation.

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