If overworked employees are more likely to commit errors, then the consumers who ended up with the meat inspected by one particular Department of Agriculture (USDA) food safety inspector may have cause for concern. A recent audit found one Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) employee averaged almost thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year in fiscal year 2012. While this was the most extreme case, the incidence of food safety employees working extraordinary hours is by no means rare. Over 400 of the 10,000 inspectors averaged in excess of 60 hours per week, including 14 averaging more than 75 hours, and another three who averaged over 80 hours per week.
When food safety officials were presented with the audit's finding by the inspector general (OIG) of the USDA, they admitted ignorance of the excessive overtime hours, but downplayed the significance:
[FSIS officials] stated that they were unaware of this fact, and doubted that this extended overtime would negatively affect the agency’s inspectors... Officials explained that, although FSIS has set limits on the number of hours an inspector can work in one day, FSIS has not limited inspectors working overtime hours for extended periods of time...
The FSIS union contract stipulates that field inspectors are generally not to work more than 10 or 12 hours in one day, depending on their duties. However, we found that some inspectors are working these hours six and even seven days a week. Because of these extended hours, OIG believes FSIS inspectors could have decreased productivity, which might impair their ability to perform functions that are critical to public food safety...
The concerns of the OIG about the effects of such excessive overtime are shared by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). The OIG cited OSHA regulations in the audit:
According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, extended or unusual work shifts may be stressful physically, mentally, and emotionally. These effects lead to an increased risk of operator error, injuries, or accidents. Federal regulations state that Departments, such as USDA, shall schedule the basic work week so as to consist of five consecutive 8-hour days, although the Department may depart from the basic work week in those cases where maintaining such a schedule would seriously handicap the Department in carrying out its function.
The OIG audit also uncovered some problems with FSIS's record keeping and billing for overtime hours:
FSIS could not adequately reconcile reimbursable overtime charges to industry with the overtime recorded by field staff in its timekeeping system, which could potentially have resulted in up to an estimated $10.6 million in underbilled overtime and up to an estimated $4.7 million in overcharges to industry.
The OIG made seven recommendations to the FSIS regarding overtime hours, and the FSIS and the OIG came up with mutually agreeable responses for each of the concerns raised by the audit.