Déjà Vu
Why Are OSHA’s Top Ten Citations Almost Always the Same?
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The ball has dropped, the champagne is gone, and new calendars are going up everywhere. A common sentiment this time of year is “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” This adage seems especially appropriate for the annual report of OSHA’s ten most cited violations.
OSHA announced its preliminary “Top Ten” list for fiscal year 2023 in October. (The list is preliminary since the rankings may change as contested citations are adjudicated and inspection data are finalized.) For those who had seen the list in previous years, the new version was a rather unsurprising lineup of the usual suspects, as shown in Table 1.
Each year, the Top Ten list is rolled out with some fanfare at the National Safety Council Congress and Expo, followed by a flurry of news releases and associated coverage in the various EHS trade publications. While the rankings change from year to year, the same ten violations almost always appear. For instance, in 2023, respiratory protection was ranked seventh on the list; in 2022, it was ranked fourth. For a sense of how consistent these rankings are, see Table 2.
COMMON HAZARDS The authors of this article are a former OSHA regional director and a past chair of the AIHA Safety Committee. We wanted to explore why the Top Ten list changes so little from year to year. Although we did not locate a formal history during our literature search, as far as we could tell, OSHA has published its Top Ten list since 2002. Its purpose is to educate employers on what inspectors commonly see on site. The ultimate goal is to enable workplaces to anticipate and recognize these common hazards and take steps to protect their workers. A definitive analysis of the Top Ten list’s consistency may be impossible; it would require interviews with compliance officers nationwide to identify what they did and didn’t cite and why.
We hypothesized that a quasi-repetitive list generates several questions, such as: 1. Are these violations the low-hanging fruit? 2. Do compliance officers look for these violations preferentially? 3. Are these citations the easiest to prove? 4. What is the benefit of the list if it is repetitive? 5. How do these citations compare to data on injuries and illnesses?
We also wanted to hear from OEHS professionals for whom OSHA compiles and releases its data. Therefore, we asked for your thoughts on the matter using LinkedIn; Catalyst, AIHA’s member forum; the community forums of the American Society of Safety Professionals; and the survey platform Qualtrics.
We administered the survey through Qualtrics and promoted it on LinkedIn. The eight questions included open-ended and semi-quantitative responses using Likert scales. A couple of closing questions asked the nature of the respondents’ employment and how long they have been in the profession. The two open-ended questions allowed for more personal responses. Since the survey data were collected anonymously, our hope was that respondents would share their honest opinions. The survey was active for two weeks.
Table 1. OSHA’s Preliminary 2023 Top Ten Most Cited Violations
Table 2. OSHA’s Top Ten Violations List Since 2014
Click or tap on the tables above to view larger versions in your browser.
SURVEY RESULTS The LinkedIn post was viewed 3,120 times, yielding 69 completed Qualtrics surveys. LinkedIn metrics don’t indicate how many of the views were unique, so the response rate can’t be known with certainty; we can say that the minimum response rate was 2.2 percent assuming that each view represents a single individual. The 69 surveys were completed from unique IP addresses. The following discussion considers what the responses to the survey reveal about perceptions of the Top Ten list.
Question 1: Do you think the OSHA Top Ten violations list represents the most common hazards in the workplace?
More than half of respondents (55 percent) answered yes to this question. But OSHA doesn’t claim that the list represents the most common hazards; the list reflects, instead, the most frequently cited violations of OSHA standards. Clearly, the Top Ten list is popular among safety and health practitioners, who share it widely, post it to LinkedIn, present it in their annual safety plans, and make it the subject of numerous safety posters. But many factors affect why these citations rise to the top, so careful use of the Top Ten list is warranted. Designing a safety program around the list is not wise; it should be one tool among many. To illustrate, let’s consider the three standards that were cited the most in fiscal year 2023: fall protection, hazard communication, and respiratory protection.
Falls accounted for 37 percent of construction deaths in 2021, the most recent year for which data are available, and fall protection in construction has been at the top of the list for 13 years in a row. OSHA defines falls as one of its “fatal four” hazards, but curiously, the other three (struck-by hazards, electrocution hazards, and caught-in or -between hazards) have never appeared in the Top Ten list.
Compared to other hazards, fall hazards in construction are ubiquitous. They can be seen from the road and often justify a “drop-in” or “imminent danger” inspection by a passing compliance officer or a referral by a concerned citizen. Knowing that they are one of the top ten citations might encourage a construction EHS professional to enforce company policies or give superintendents, forepersons, and team leaders sufficient reason to follow them.
But when we consider all industries, not just construction, the number one cause of workplace deaths is transportation accidents (38 percent of total workplace fatalities in 2021). Slips, trips, and falls are a distant second (16 percent). Making fall protection the top priority in your safety program can result in poor use of resources to correct a problem you may not have. Many businesses have no fall hazards at all in their routine operations.
The second most citations in 2023 pertained to hazard communication. These citations are related to deficient safety data sheets, improper labeling, and inadequate or absent training. The OSHA hazard communication standard is designed to ensure chemical safety in the workplace. It provides guidance for exposure hazards as well as fire prevention and disposal. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries indicates that 15 percent of fatal injuries were attributed to exposure, but this category also includes exposure to electricity and temperature extremes. Inhalation and fire deaths account for only 3 percent of the total.
The respiratory protection standard resulted in the third most citations in 2023. But as with falls and hazard communication, fatalities from improper respiratory protection are relatively infrequent. Most of the citations pertain to training, fit-testing, medical screening, and other programmatic requirements. The citations do not often arise from documented overexposures and related morbidity.
We understand and acknowledge that fatality data is not the only measure of a program’s failure. Fatalities can occur long after exposures have ceased, and other illnesses or injuries related to the ten most cited standards can be debilitating. But if Heinrich’s Hierarchy of Incidents is valid, fatalities are a useful metric.
Question 2: Does the Top Ten list represent the easiest violations for the compliance officer to support?
Seventy percent of respondents indicated their opinion on this question was definitely or probably yes. More than the presence of a hazard is needed for OSHA to generate a citation. The compliance officer must be able to prove that the condition exists, convince their supervisor, and receive approval from the area director. This process is difficult, and many potential citations are vacated during the application of internal checks and balances. The citations that appear on the Top Ten list tend to be those that previous inspections have found at similar employers, and many will have survived previous contests and evaluation by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. In short, many compliance officers know that if they find one of the top ten issues, they will likely be able to cite it, and the citation will likely survive.
Question 3: Do you think publishing the OSHA Top Ten list is helpful to the average occupational health and safety manager?
Only 41 percent of respondents indicated that the Top Ten list was definitely or probably helpful to the average OHS manager. This finding may indicate that a repetitive list loses its usefulness. Many respondents suggested that the list’s usefulness is relative to the manager’s experience: a new professional will benefit from seeing the list for the first time, while more seasoned professionals have already realized whatever benefits the list provides. And some respondents suggested that the Top Ten list generates discussions that allow an exchange of ideas on frequency, severity, inspection processes, citation likelihood, and more.
One consideration for this question is that the Top Ten list combines the construction and general industry sections of OSHA standards, which makes the list arguably more difficult for employers to use. Separate lists for construction and general industry might be more beneficial.
Question 4: Do you think the Top Ten list represents a set of violations that compliance officers typically look for?
An overwhelming majority of respondents (81 percent) felt the list reflected what compliance officers typically look for. Their inspections are usually guided by checklists, which focus attention on items that may escape detection during a cursory examination. For example, scaffold planking is often readily identifiable as meeting OSHA requirements for strength, but a checklist may help the compliance officer find the one defective plank that slipped in.
However, checklists can be problematic if they are followed so precisely that items not on the list go unnoticed. For instance, if the checklist for a ladder inspection doesn’t specify the appropriate warning labels, the inspector may not be aware that a freestanding ladder must have a label warning against using the top two steps.
According to OSHA’s Field Operations Manual (FOM), inspections can be either comprehensive or limited. Limited inspections are conducted for specific purposes like responding to complaints or meeting the requirements of a local, regional, or national emphasis program. These inspections tend to narrow the scope of what an OSHA inspector might look for and, therefore, cite. However, the FOM does give inspectors latitude to expand the scope of an inspection: “A partial inspection can be expanded based on information gathered by the [compliance safety and health officer] during the inspection process, including from injury and illness records found in both OSHA forms 300 and 301, employee interviews, and plain view observations.”
HELPFUL DATA Our small survey, while limited, indicates varied perceptions of the OSHA Top Ten list. A slight majority of respondents believe that the citations reflect the most common hazards in a workplace even though data on workplace fatalities suggest otherwise. Only about two-fifths of respondents believe the list to be useful to the average OHS manager. Lastly, more than two-thirds indicated that the citations are the easiest to prove, while four-fifths believe the list represents only the top things the compliance officers look for during inspections.
However, we believe that the OSHA Top Ten list is helpful when preparing for a compliance inspection. If you have those programs in order and well implemented, the compliance officers will have to look harder for a violation during their limited time on site and may experience some diminishing returns on their efforts.
This article only considered the Top Ten list as a function of the compliance officers who conduct inspections; their job is narrowly defined. The employer is responsible for looking at the entire site, filling in all the gaps, and addressing all hazards every workday for every worker. OSHA is there to help push employers in the right direction and coerce them when necessary.
For these reasons, the Top Ten list is a helpful compilation of data for OSHA to share. Deciding how and where to use it should be part of your resolutions this year.
MATTHEW PARKER, MS, CIH, CSP, ARM, is an industrial hygienist at Paragon Tech Services. He is a member and past chair of the AIHA Safety Committee.
BRYAN SEAL, PhD, CIH, CSP, CHMM, REHS/RS, is an associate professor of safety sciences at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an at-large director on the AIHA Board of Directors. He is the Board liaison for AIHA’s Green Council, which includes the Safety Committee.
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Bureau of Labor Statistics: “National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2021” (PDF, December 2022).
National Safety Council: “OSHA Reveals Top 10 Safety Violations at NSC Congress & Expo” (October 2023).
OSHA: “Inspection Procedures,” chapter 3 in Field Operations Manual.
Vector Solutions: “OSHA Basics: OSHA’s Top Ten Violations/Citations, Year by Year” (September 2018).