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Behind the Story: NICAR data leads to OSHA investigation

In October, the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting sent an email over its listserv announcing that updated data were available from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  Ron Shawgo of the Journal Gazette of Indiana then realized the paper had never examined OSHA data for Indiana.  So he requested the data. Through his analysis, he discovered that Indiana’s inspection numbers have been declining, resulting in a backlog of businesses that have never been inspected.

Shawgo began with 21 tables of data for Indiana, dating back to 1972.  He linked the tables and ran queries in Microsoft Access.  “I started looking at numbers of inspections over the years,” he said.  The state was completing 5,000 fewer inspections than it had 20 years earlier. His article,  “Is OSHA falling down on job?” was based on this initial query.

Behind The Story
A weekly series from IRE exploring the investigative process. If you have a suggestion for the series, email web@ire.org.


In the NICAR data library


At IRE 2013

  • Inspect This: Uncover the gold mine of inspection data. Get ideas and techniques on how to track inspectors at each level of government. Walk away with story ideas to impress your boss at home.

    This panel debuted at CAR 2013. Read about it on our conference blog.

Shawgo knew that Indiana, like 26 other states, opted to have a state-run OSHA when the U.S. Department of Labor started the program in the 1970s. The federal OSHA sets guidelines for these state agencies, but has little power to enforce them.

He determined how well Indiana was meeting these goals by comparing the data sets provided by NICAR with national data sets available on the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA’s web pages.  He also pulled OSHA’s Federal Annual Monitoring and Evaluation (FAME) Reports, which provide audits of each state’s program.

Shawgo says it took a while for him to massage the data.  “As a reporter, you’re always concerned you’re misrepresenting the numbers,” he said. Being able to refer back to the national data gave him a sense of what other states’ departments had accomplished.  He found that Indiana’s rates of fatalities and illnesses/accidents had declined at a similar pace with national rates; however, the inspections numbers led him to question how thoroughly IOSHA was protecting Indiana’s workers.

In a phone conference with three IOSHA officials, Shawgo presented his findings and was able to confirm that inspections had fallen since the 1980s.  The agency was “very cooperative” he said.  

Representatives at IOSHA told Shawgo a decreasing budget and high turnover were responsible for the lower inspection numbers.  The state has set a yearly goal of 2,000 inspections, but in an interview with Shawgo, a former labor commissioner for the state of Indiana said it would take IOSHA 80 years to inspect all of Indiana’s workplaces at current staff levels.  “I came away from this realizing they’re dealing with the money they have,” Shawgo said.      

He hopes to continue to use the data from NICAR for future investigations.

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