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Courtesy IOSHA
An IOSHA inspector assesses damage after the state fair stage collapse in Indianapolis in 2011; the accident killed seven.

Insufficient oversight

The numbers tell the story.

40: The number of Indiana workplace inspectors.

70: The number of inspectors federal officials say the Hoosier state needs.

7,000: Roughly the number of annual inspections Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted in the 1980s.

2,000: The average number of annual inspections IOSHA conducted over the past decade.

1,205: The number of IOSHA inspections conducted in the last fiscal year.

32: The percentage of IOSHA inspection files in fiscal year 2011 that a federal audit showed contained inadequate documentation.

39: The percentage of IOSHA inspections in 2011 that discovered violations.

60: The average percentage of inspections conducted by other state OSHAs that discovered violations.

15.7: Average number of days it took IOSHA to initiate an inspection in response to 41 complaints studied by federal auditors. The goal is no more than 10 days.

Even when inspectors find serious violations, as Ron Shawgo’s stories on Sunday and Monday demonstrated, the fines levied are far less than the federal government would collect. They pose little incentive to ensure safe workplaces.

Indiana is one of 26 states that runs its own OSHA program, and the state is clearly understaffed. State officials say, on one hand, that the federal guidelines dictating Indiana have 70 inspectors are outdated; yet they also acknowledge that they have been short-staffed when major workplace accidents have diverted inspectors. The stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair, for example, occupied a lot of time of six inspectors.

Sadly, Indiana’s failure to inspect even new factories was apparent in the 2011 death of Michael Oberly at a Fort Wayne manufacturer that was inspected for the first time after Oberly died. This despite the fact that the factory opened in 2008 and the company reported eight injuries, five including missed time from work, in 2009.

Fortunately, workplace deaths per 100 workers have declined significantly, both in Indiana and across the nation. And the number of violations discovered in inspections may well be down partly because workplaces are safer. Moreover, the inspectors have unquestionably complex jobs, in which workplace safety includes adequate and reasonable measures at everything from factories to convenience stores that are repeatedly robbed.

But the complexity is another argument for, at the least, maintaining an adequate OSHA workforce. The shortage of inspectors leaves too many workplaces uninspected for too long. And – like the Indiana Department of Environmental Management – some OSHA practices are the regulatory equivalent of plea bargaining, with officials sometimes too willingly reducing the severity of the violation and the amount of fines.

Yes, expanding OSHA is unpopular and costly – though the federal government pays half of the Indiana OSHA budget and fines bring in money as well. For a state that heavily depends on manufacturing, making and keeping workplaces safe is not an option.