WASHINGTON -- Arizona's safety inspectors are some of the least-experienced in nation, according to a report this month by the Government Accountability Office.
More than half of the 18 safety inspectors who were on the job at the time of the report had been in their positions for less than five years, the report said. That gave Arizona the fourth-highest percentage of short-term inspectors among 21 states and Puerto Rico that manage their own workplace safety agencies.
Jessie Atencio, an acting director of the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, disputed the accuracy of the report, saying many of the state's inspectors may simply have been transferred within the division.
He also pointed to proactive measures, such as a free consultation program that helps small and at-risk businesses, which he said is just as busy as the inspection side.
"We feel we're making tremendous strides as far as visiting with employers," he said.
But Arizona AFL-CIO spokesman Bob Grossfeld said more safety inspectors or higher fines could help prevent workplace accidents like the one that led to the 2012 death of Danny Murphy. He was killed when the dump truck he was driving toppled over the edge of an access road on a job in Pima County.
Murphy had told family members he was worried about job safety a week before the accident, said Grossfeld. But the Arizona Division of Safety and Health found no violations and did not issue a citation.
"These kinds of stories are pretty common," Grossfeld said.
Atencio said a workplace death may not result in a citation from his department if the investigation shows, for example, that the employee was at fault.
In 2011, the state reported 65 workplace deaths, 38 percent of which were related to a vehicle accident. That same year, the GAO said, Arizona fell short of its goal of 1,400 safety inspections, completing only 913 for the year. The record improved in 2012, when Arizona's 1,138 inspections exceeded its goal of 1,103.
The GAO said all the states that manage their own workplace and safety inspections are plagued by high turnover, driven in part by demand from the private businesses that siphon off trained inspectors with higher salaries.
Atencio said while some people leave to go into the private sector, many inspectors get transferred within the division and start advising businesses on how to improve their safety measures.
He also said while Arizona was named in the report for not offering competitive raises, the state's starting rate, about $47,000 according to the GAO, is much higher than other states.
"We feel we're at the upper echelon," Atencio said.
He said the number of inspectors is determined by the state budget: 18 was a high point for the agency, which has since dropped back to 17 inspectors.
Tom O'Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said it is hard to know how many inspectors Arizona needs to inspect each business within a reasonable amount of time, but the number is far higher than the current total.
"This has been a problem throughout the history of OSHA, particularly at the state level," he said.
Eric Lutz agreed that it's impossible to know how many safety inspectors are needed to have a reasonable ratio between inspectors and job sites. But Lutz, a University of Arizona assistant professor of environmental and occupational health, said staffing shortages have forced state inspectors to be reactionary, responding to complaints and trends in high-risk industries rather than proactively visiting job sites that might merit it.
"There are not enough safety inspectors to do that, nor have there ever been," Lutz said.
Atencio said that businesses are currently inspected only if they have an accident, a complaint is filed or they are chosen for inspection at random by a third party outside the state.
An official with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the agency acknowledges staffing is a problem for states that do their own safety inspections.
"The hiring, retention and training challenges facing the states are issues that OSHA is well aware of, and as the report notes, issues the agency has been working with the states to address," wrote Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels in a response to the GAO report.
O'Connor and Grossfeld said the need for more inspectors is part of a nationwide problem that led to the explosion of a West, Texas, fertilizer plant two weeks ago. The plant had not been inspected since 1985, O'Connor said.
"It's not just an accident, these things are preventable," Grossfeld said.