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State programs

‘Starvation diet’?

A report from a former Cal/OSHA employee claims the agency is understaffed – even though funding is available

April 1, 2014

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Has a political agenda “starved” California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health of resources, leading to reduced staffing and funding levels – as well as workers being put in danger?

Those are the allegations raised by a former employee of the State Plan program, commonly referred to as Cal/OSHA. Written in January and broadly disseminated in February, Garrett Brown’s report describes the state agency as being on a politically driven “starvation diet.”

A 20-year veteran of Cal/OSHA, Brown served the agency for more than 17 years as a compliance officer and two-and-a-half years as a special assistant to the Cal/OSHA chief. He took early retirement at the end of 2013, telling Safety+Health he believed he could better help the agency from the outside.

According to Brown, the California governor’s administration takes a business-friendly approach to enforcing labor standards, with an emphasis on compliance assistance over enforcement. As a result, Brown said, the state has failed to use all of the funding available to the agency.

California currently has about $20 million in Cal/OSHA funding sitting idle, he asserts. The money – which comes from a fund specifically earmarked for Cal/OSHA – could be used to hire needed additional inspectors, said Brown, who claims that staffing levels at Cal/OSHA are at historic lows.

Because of smaller staffing levels, Cal/OSHA is unable to respond to worker complaints or close safety and health inspections in a timely enough manner to meet federal OSHA benchmarks, the report states. For example, in fiscal year 2012, the agency took an average of 86 days to close a safety inspection and 97 days to close a health inspection. The federal benchmarks were 56 and 68, respectively.

“My view is, unless you have sufficient resources in terms of staffing and an enforcement posture … then you end up with significantly weaker protections for workers in California,” Brown said.

Christine Baker, director of California’s Department of Industrial Relations (which oversees Cal/OSHA), said Brown’s allegations are “not well-founded.” Although the agency is looking into how much time it takes to conduct inspections, Brown’s figures fail to paint the full picture, Baker told S+H, because some inspections are complex and take more time.

The Cal/OSHA fund is not “money left on the table” that could be used for hiring additional inspectors, according to Greg Edwards, California DIR’s chief financial officer. Rather, he said, the fund is used to support the agency during the fiscal year while Cal/OSHA is waiting for funding from employer assessment fees.

The number of inspectors on staff is important, but the output of those inspectors is more important, Baker said, citing declining injuries and illnesses in the state as evidence that workers are being protected.

The budget previously had a cap, she added, preventing the agency from requesting additional funding. The cap has since been removed, and Cal/OSHA will be filling 29 positions and adding an additional 15, she said.

“Each time, if we can justify it, we will propose it,” Baker said of increasing staffing levels. “It’s not just screaming, ‘We need more staff.’ We’ve got to justify it.”

In a Feb. 23 letter (provided to S+H by Brown) to the California governor, former Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess backs up Brown’s report, and describes the state agency as “significantly understaffed and failing to meet its many mandates.”

And in light of the allegations raised in Brown’s report, on Feb. 11 advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a complaint with federal OSHA against the state agency.

“Workers in California have less protection on the job now than at any other time in a generation due to the implosion of Cal/OSHA,” Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, said in the complaint. Federal OSHA did not immediately respond to questions regarding how it may address the complaint.

When asked to comment on PEER’s complaint, Baker told S+H, “I feel comfortable that we are taking all the steps necessary to improve Cal/OSHA.”

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