Last week, the Charlotte Observer reported that federal Department of Labor audits of North Carolina and South Carolina's OSHA enforcement programs revealed what DOL considers to be serious problems with both states' workplace safety efforts. Most of these problems center on DOL's concerns that the state OSHA programs are not assessing high enough fines for safety violations, and are not aggressively pursuing classification of violations as repeat or willful.
Under federal law, states are entitled to enforce OSHA rules in lieu of federal administration. However, the states must demonstrate that their enforcement programs are as effective as that maintained by federal OSHA. As previously reported in EmployNews, the Obama administration has taken an aggressive position with regard to OSHA fines and enforcement actions against employers, as compared to previous emphasis on consultation and cooperative efforts with business.
Employers in states with federal enforcement of OSHA rules such as Alabama and Florida have noticed increased fines, and a reduced willingness of OSHA to compromise contested citations as an alternative to appeal. Based on the federal audits, DOL is clearly pressuring state enforcement programs to adopt similar aggressive enforcement tactics, under the threat of loss of their ability to administer their own workplace safety programs.
The DOL audits criticized North Carolina and South Carolina for recordkeeping, negotiation and employee anti-retaliation protection efforts. The audits did not focus on the thoroughness or accuracy of the actual safety and health audits, or call into question the competency of the state agencies' inspection programs.
Given decreasing employee death and injury rates in both states, the audits' findings could be characterized as politically-motivated. Labor unions have pushed OSHA to increase fines and enforcement activity, in part to provide arguments for organizing efforts. Regardless, North Carolina and South Carolina will likely step up efforts to punish employers for routine safety violations out of concern over the possible loss of their state enforcement programs.