Product Safety Laboratories:

OSHA's Accreditation Process Needs Reexamination

GAO-13-88: Published: Dec 11, 2012. Publicly Released: Dec 11, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Labor's (Labor) Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) process for accrediting Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories (NRTL) is lengthy due to the scope of staff members' responsibilities and unclear application procedures for accreditation. Among the 13 recently approved applications, OSHA took between 1 and 5 years to make accreditation decisions. All of these applications took much longer to approve than OSHA's desired time frames, and in some cases, years longer. In addition, 12 of the 29 applications that were awaiting final decisions by OSHA as of June 2012 had been under review longer than the 5-year period for which the accreditation decision would be valid. This lengthy process has potentially negative economic consequences for laboratories and requires OSHA staff to divert their time from other oversight activities. Two key factors led to the long time frames:

  • Imbalance between staffing levels and scope of responsibilities: The way that OSHA has designed the NRTL program requires its four staff members to balance many wide-ranging responsibilities. These responsibilities include: reviewing all aspects of accreditation, auditing existing laboratories, and responding to information requests from other federal agencies. Consequently, accreditation applications were sometimes set aside for significant amounts of time while OSHA personnel attended to their other responsibilities.
  • Unclear application requirements: OSHA's requirements for the content and level of detail to be provided in accreditation applications--such as detailed information to assess independence--differ in important ways from international standards used for accrediting safety labs. Lack of clarity in guidance about these and other requirements create confusion among applicants and extend both the amount of time applicants spend preparing the applications and the time OSHA officials spend reviewing them. OSHA said its additional requirements are important to the agency's mission, but it has not formally compared them to current international standards or recently assessed the risks, costs, and benefits of any procedures that deviate from international standards.

While OSHA plans to take some steps to improve timeliness, it has not taken advantage of a range of promising strategies, including some that might address its resource constraints and improve efficiency. GAO identified three key strategies for improving timeliness: (1) aligning program design with program mission and resources; (2) providing clear guidance and timely communication to stakeholders; and (3) developing performance measures and using data to identify inefficiencies. GAO found that OSHA has not evaluated the NRTL accreditation process to assess whether its current structure is the most efficient for processing and approving applications in a timely manner and meeting the program's goals. Consequently, OSHA's processes may be slower than necessary and planned hiring may not adequately address timeliness issues. Since the NRTL program was created in 1988, several new approaches to accreditation have been developed. For example, some federal agencies have collaborated with outside entities to complete select tasks in the accreditation process while continuing to make key oversight decisions in-house. The NRTL staff's current workload has made it difficult for them to implement other timeliness strategies, such as providing timely communication to stakeholders. In addition, OSHA recently stopped using its NRTL performance measures because officials believed that meeting them was impractical.

Why GAO did this study

American workers interact with many types of products that could pose risks to their safety. The NRTL program, administered by OSHA, works to support employers and workers by establishing a process for safety-testing certain equipment and other products for use in the U.S. workplace. Under this program, which is supported by user fees, OSHA accredits third-party labs as NRTLs, which then determine whether certain types of products meet safety standards. Because the availability of NRTLs is essential to ensuring that employers have timely access to products that meet safety standards, GAO was asked to examine (1) how long it takes to make accreditation decisions and the key factors that affect timeliness, and (2) the extent to which OSHA has adopted commonly used strategies for improving timeliness. GAO reviewed relevant documents and data from OSHA; interviewed OSHA officials, other NRTL stakeholders, and officials from four federal agencies that administer accreditation programs for other purposes; and reviewed information on strategies for improving timeliness from past GAO reports and other sources.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Labor review its current structure and procedures for accrediting NRTLs and implement alternatives that would maintain effectiveness while improving timeliness. Labor agreed with the recommendations and described its plans to address them.

For more information, contact Revae Moran at (202) 512-7215 or moranr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In 2014, OSHA reported that it continued to review the risks, costs and benefits of various structural approaches to making accreditation decisions in terms of both timeliness and effectiveness in achieving OSHA's mission. The agency stated that it is working closely with National Institute of Standards and Technology and NRTL program stakeholders to obtain their views on accreditation approaches and identify best practices. To this end, it convened a stakeholder meeting in October 2014 to discuss options for modifying the NRTL program, including the possible use of third-party accreditation. We are encouraged by OSHA's efforts to review its approach to accreditation and will monitor the agency's efforts to complete the review and implement any related actions.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the NRTL accreditation process, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to review the NRTL program's structure and accreditation application procedures to identify and implement any alternatives that better align program design with resource levels and improve program timeliness while remaining consistent with the agency's mission. This review should draw upon the expertise of NIST or other organizations that provide guidance on developing effective and efficient accreditation schemes. It should include identifying and evaluating the risks, costs, and benefits of various structural approaches for making accreditation decisions in terms of both timeliness and effectiveness in achieving OSHA's mission. Approaches could include using an external accrediting organization to implement some or all of the lab accreditation duties, using contractors to support in-house portions of the accreditation process, or separating testing from certification accreditation activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: OSHA reported in 2014 that it is in the process of aligning NRTL program requirements with international consensus standards, as provided in the National Technology Transfer Advancement Act. The agency plans to align its NRTL program testing and certification requirements with ISO/IEC 17025 and ISO/IEC17065, respectively. It also plans to publish a policy directive that supplements these standards with clarifications and interpretations specific to the NRTL Program. The agency stated that, by clearly aligning NRTL Program performance-based requirements with international standards, it hopes to create a better understanding of how to comply with OSHA's requirements, eliminate redundant OSHA-specific policies that are addressed in the international standard, and establish a foundation that supports a transition to third party accreditation should OSHA decide to pursue this approach. OSHA reported that it is drafting a notice for the Federal Register that will solicit comments on the potential policies and the agency hopes to issue a final policy after it solicits and weighs these comments. We are encouraged by OSHA's efforts to review its approach and align it with international standards and will monitor the agency's continued efforts, including the Federal Register notice.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the NRTL accreditation process, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to review the NRTL program's structure and accreditation application procedures to identify and implement any alternatives that better align program design with resource levels and improve program timeliness while remaining consistent with the agency's mission. This review should include reviewing OSHA's current regulations and procedures to identify areas where increased alignment with international standards on accreditation may result in time savings without impairing the agency's mission to protect workers' safety and health. This could include analyzing the risks, costs, and benefits to effectiveness involved in making any program modifications or changes to existing regulations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In 2014, OSHA reported that it is considering options for making large-scale changes to how NTRLs are reviewed for accreditation and described plans to integrate independent review into any new accreditation process. In the interim, OSHA reported that it has developed a peer review process that ensures that every application finding is reviewed by other technical staff members prior to being sent to the NRTL for corrective action. Once all the corrective actions have been made, a second peer review takes place to verify the final state of the application. Findings with concurrences are then forwarded to the NRTL Program Director for final review and approval. We are encouraged by OSHA's actions to create an interim process for ensuring that accreditations are reviewed by an independent technical reviewer and will monitor the agency's actions to incorporate independent review into any new accreditation process.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the NRTL accreditation process, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to review the NRTL program's structure and accreditation application procedures to identify and implement any alternatives that better align program design with resource levels and improve program timeliness while remaining consistent with the agency's mission. This review should include ensuring that all lab accreditation decisions are reviewed by an independent technical reviewer in order to better align the accreditation decision process with internal controls principles for separating key duties and international standards on making accreditation decisions. OSHA should evaluate options for achieving independent review based in part on their effects on process duration.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In 2014, OSHA reported that it is drafting a notice for the Federal Register that solicits stakeholder comments on its potential changes to the NRTL program. The agency also convened a stakeholder meeting in October 2014 to solicit comments on options for modifying the NRTL program. We are encouraged by these ongoing actions to promote transparent and solicit stakeholder comments and will monitor OSHA's continued actions to involve stakeholders and modify program guidance as it implements new accreditation procedures and requirements.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the NRTL accreditation process, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to review the NRTL program's structure and accreditation application procedures to identify and implement any alternatives that better align program design with resource levels and improve program timeliness while remaining consistent with the agency's mission. This review should include improving overall program guidance and transparency to help prevent delays in the approval process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2014, OSHA reported that is has implemented modified timelines and administrative application processing procedures. Subsequently, the agency reported that application processing times have been reduced from an average of 48+ months to less than 12 months. OSHA has also developed a database management system which allows them to track processing times and bottlenecks at each stage of the NRTL Program accreditation process. The agency also reported developing performance metrics to identify performance trends and stated that this information has provided necessary feedback to OSHA and the NRTLS about how to improve the program within individual NRTLs and across the program as a whole. Contingent on future funding levels, OSHA hopes to adapt its management database to a web environment so that results are more readily available to NRTL applicants. In the interim, OSHA reported increasing its communication with NRTLS to provide updated information on the status of their applications. The agency also plans to publish a performance report for each NRTL starting in fiscal year 2015 to provide feedback on their program performance.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the NRTL accreditation process, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health to review the NRTL program's structure and accreditation application procedures to identify and implement any alternatives that better align program design with resource levels and improve program timeliness while remaining consistent with the agency's mission. This review should include establishing program goals and performance measures, including timeliness goals for the approval of accreditation applications, and analyzing resulting performance measurement data to identify potential inefficiencies in the application process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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