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Thursday, Apr 1, 2010, 9:55 am

California’s Workplace Safety Standards Under Fire

BY Rose Arrieta

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The state's workplace safety appeals board ruled a worker's 17-foot fall was not a serious violation because there wasn't enough evidence that "such a fall would cause serious injury.”

A workplace safety agency in California appears to be leaving workers unprotected because of questionable rulings by the agency’s appeals board.

In a hearing yesterday (Wednesday), the head of the state Senate Labor Committee accused the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health appeals board of tending to side with employers and ignoring a law that requires fines for employers who fail to report on-the-job industries.

Bay Area Senator Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) may introduce legislation that could lead to criminal charges against Cal-OSHA appeals board members if they continue to disregard the law that requires them to fine $5,000 to employers who fail to report accidents in a timely way.

The hearing is fallout from an investigation last fall by the Los Angeles Times that found the workplace safety appeals board repeatedly dismissed and reduced the penalties levied by division inspectors, even in situations in which workers had died or were seriously injured.

Under the Schwarzenegger administration the budget for the agency has shrunk and only 200 inspectors monitor all worksites in California. Cal-OSHA received stimulus money to hire more inspectors but so far, has refused to do so.

Last year, 47 inspectors and district managers at Cal-OSHA, signed a letter to the board complaining that the agencies "deterrent effect has been significantly undermined as employers learn they can 'game the system.' "

"It sends a message that all an employer has to do is appeal," said Jeremy Smith of the California Labor Federation, a group that lobbies on behalf of unions. "Penalties will get whittled down, and the employer can write that off as the cost of doing business."

Candice Traeger, head of the appeals board, told the LA Times, “We are not biased.” The board makes decisions on disputes between inspectors and employers. She said her critics have used "misinformation" to wage a campaign against her.

Campaign or not, the fact is, she has been at the helm of a board that has made a series of highly questionable decisions.

For instance, the board dismissed a Cal-OSHA citation of an employer who left a dangerous nail gun unattended while connected to a compressor. The board said that there was a “lack of evidence” that a 3 ¼ inch nail could do serious harm to a person.

In January the U.S. Department of Labor launched an audit to look into concerns over how Cal-OSHA appeals board operates after complaints by inspectors and the handling of cases.

One case highlighted in the Times article was that of Bimbo Bakeries where five workers lost fingers in separate bakery accidents. In those cases, inspectors found similar safety violations.

The appeals board dismissed citations or reduced fines by thousands of dollars. It also failed to require the company to change dangerous conditions.

In a commentary by James Huff, PhD, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, he cites industry influence on occupational and environmental public health. He writes in part, “…governmental health agencies charged with protecting workers and the environment appear to have changed course and now work with and condone unhealthy worker and environmental practices.”

At Wednesday’s hearing Michael Smith, an attorney for Worksafe, a nonprofit group, expressed concern over a case in which a worker fell 17 feet through an unguarded opening and the board found that the accident did not constitute a serious violation because Cal/OSHA “had not offered enough evidence that such a fall would cause serious injury.”

DeSaulnier said he found Wednesday's testimony from state officials, labor advocates and business interests "very troubling."

A Government Accountability report noted last year that “employers and workers routinely underreport work-related injuries and illnesses,” calling into question the accuracy of nationwide data that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration compiles each year.

The report went on to state that many employers did not report workplace injuries and illnesses for fear of increasing their workers’ compensation costs or hurting their chances of winning contracts.

 It also found that workers did not report job-related injuries because they feared being fired or disciplined.


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Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented—including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.

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