Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Has Cal/OSHA Lost Too Many Inspectors?

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Has Cal/OSHA Lost Too Many Inspectors?

Article excerpt

The OSH Act requires that state plans be "at least as effective" as the federal program, including the development and enforcement of standards. It is not clear how federal OSHA assesses this provision: no state program has ever been abolished solely for not satisfying federal OSHA requirements. Some California inspectors now believe the state plan is coming under serious stress due to a long-standing hiring freeze.

"There is no evidence that California is not meeting its program requirements," countered an OSHA official. "OSHA does not assess the enforcement of a state occupational safety and health program solely by the number of compliance personnel."

The latter statement is well supported by a variety of data. The California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS) asserts there are now 33 percent more fish and game wardens than workplace health and safety inspectors. The state appears to have half as many inspectors per covered workers as federal OSHA (see graph).

California's state plan OSHA program (Cal/OSHA) has lost more than threequarters of its inspectors since 1980, while its civilian labor force has grown by over 50 percent in the same time period, according to information obtained from Cal/OSHA's inspectors' union. The year 1980 is a significant one for California because in that year benchmarks calling for 334 safety and 471 health compliance officers were established for the state's occupational safety program. Meeting the benchmark is a requirement for final state plan approva. However, California has not sought final approval and California, like any state, can continue to avoid seeking final approval indefinitely.

"Cal/OSHA does not believe that its enforcement effectiveness has declined," asserted a spokesperson for the agency. "In fact, our information is that the number of injuries and fatalities in California workplaces is in a state of decline, and this trend has existed for several years."

According to the union, in recent years whenever someone leaves the agency or retires, the position is left vacant and eventually abolished.

"We're dying a death of a thousand cuts," complained one knowledgeable Cal/OSHA source.

Even though the federal government has funded 238 inspector positions for fiscal year 2004, CAPS maintains that due to unfilled positions and long-term leaves there are only 176.5 field inspectors actually working.

Given California's famous financial problems, the question arises as to whether the state is reducing its budget deficit by using money the federal government appropriated for occupational safety.

"OSHA state plan grants are funded based on the number of positions allocated by the state budget process for the state OSHA program," replied a federal official. "Temporary budget conditions" are one reason why "vacant positions may not be filled immediately."

Industry Group Opposes Michigan Ergonomic Rule

Convinced that Michigan's ergonomic standard advisory committee is committed to promulgating an ergonomics rule, the state's chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) has mounted a full-scale lobbying campaign to kill the proposal.

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But a state ergonomics standard still faces many hurdles, according to MIOSHA Director Doug Kalinowski.

The loss of jobs in Michigan is a big issue, and opponents of an ergonomics rule are arguing it would exacerbate the situation. A similar argument was used successfully in a referendum that repealed Washington State's ergonomics regulation. Congress nullified a national ergonomics rule 3 years ago. Currently, California is the only state with such a standard.

"The real issue in drafting these rules is that they must be based on consensus," Kalinowski asserted. "If there's polarization, it's very unlikely any rule will be finalized." The director conceded that reaching consensus on an ergonomics standard would be a "challenge. …

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