SC OSHA has overlooked workplace safety long enough

After years of frustration, the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate, has petitioned to shut down South Carolina's state-run Occupational Safety and Health Administration program (SC OSHA), citing a litany of failures that compromise worker safety. 

USSW's petition, lodged with federal OSHA, seeks to revoke South Carolina's authority to run its own OSHA program. Citing data readily available to the public, the union asserts that federal OSHA can more effectively safeguard workers than the state's program. 

This blog post speaks to the key aspects of the petition, providing an overview of the state-run program, the standards for revocation, and the metrics used to evaluate OSHA effectiveness.

The facts 

The Department of Labor permits states to run their own OSHA programs as long as state programs are “at least as effective as” the federal OSHA program. While many other jurisdictions elect to simply let the federal government fund and operate OSHA in their state, South Carolina has had a state program since 1972, funded partially by state taxpayers. In its 52 years of operation, SC’s state OSHA program has continually faced accusations that it has abdicated its duties to the workers of South Carolina.

The Union of Southern Service Workers advocates on behalf of low-wage service workers in restaurant, retail, warehousing, and care industries across the South. In response to SC OSHA’s allegedly poor performance, USSW filed a petition in December to end the program stating, “the Plan has failed to maintain an effective enforcement program,” and reinstate federal control, referencing regulations that exist in neighboring states including Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.

The case for revocation

Withdrawal of a state-sponsored program is ultimately the decision of the current U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, Douglas Parker. The USSW’s letter to Mr. Parker identified key issues with SC OSHA, which, the union argues, warrant complete withdrawal of the program in accordance with 29 C.F.R § 1955.3(a)(3).

Chief among USSW’s complaints is that:

  • Inspections and enforcement are weak and/or nonexistent
  • The penalty level for safety violations is much too low 

Insufficient workplace inspections and enforcement

Inspections and enforcement were lacking, according to the union. In the last three years, South Carolina’s enforcement presence rate (number of inspections per state’s economic size) was a paltry 0.47% from 2017 to 2022 (excluding 2020). Over the same period, Virginia was 1.34%; Tennessee was 1.40%; and North Carolina was 1.27%. Using these metrics, the AFL-CIO estimated that it would take SC OSHA 442 years to inspect every business subject to OSHA regulations. This is the worst rate among all states and it’s getting worse.

Low safety violation penalties

South Carolina’s average penalty was $2,019 in FY2022, up from only $1,042 in FY2017. The national average over the same time period was $2,870. Neighboring southern states have higher penalties: North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia averaged $2,327 for FY2022. Without strong penalties, the union argues, businesses have no incentive to abide by the law.

Looking ahead

In addition to the legal petition, USSW organized a rally to draw attention to the deficiencies in South Carolina's OSHA program. This outreach emphasizes the gravity of the current situation and signals the union's commitment to advocating for improved workplace safety and keeping this issue in the public eye.

While there are benefits to State plans that often surpass federal standards, strict oversight is crucial to not only ensure enforcement but to send an important message about the commitment to maintain standards and accountability. 

Only time will tell whether the Department of Labor deems these insufficiencies sufficient to withdraw state approval. In the meantime, the work of the USSW, other unions, and law firms focused on occupational safety and health is critical to protect workers. 

M. Nolan Webb