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Maximizing resources

December 1, 2011

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The future of Cal/OSHA in difficult financial times

By Kyle W. Morrison, senior associate editor

Widely regarded as one of the more innovative State Plan programs, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health is facing challenging times that could stall its cutting-edge efforts.

The division, commonly referred to as Cal/OSHA, is in a bind shared by many other State Plan programs and government agencies – a lack of funding.

“There is an overarching concern about finances – and a statewide hiring freeze under this administration – which is constraining the resources that Cal/OSHA can bring to bear,” said Sacramento, CA-based Judi Freyman, a principal with Mercer ORC Networks, a consulting group. “They have a very limited ability to move forward at this point in time.”

Failing to move forward would be something new for an agency that has promulgated several first-in-the-nation regulations, including those covering ergonomics and heat illness. Financial constraints could make it difficult for Cal/OSHA not only to pursue new initiatives, but also to keep up with existing enforcement actions, Freyman said. The state program lacks experts in certain fields, and being short-staffed with no increase in budget might mean any forward steps will be small.

This is a reality that Ellen Widess, the new Cal/OSHA chief, understands.

“Given the tough economic times we face, we’re really not able to imagine many new initiatives,” Widess said. “The budgetary climate limits the vision.”

Constrained efforts

Widess, who was confirmed as administrator in April after being appointed by new Gov. Jerry Brown (D), told Safety+Health in early October that due to the financial strain and hiring freeze, the agency will maximize the resources it currently has to fulfill its mandate of protecting workers.

Part of that involves using enforcement to spread the message of safety. Widess said the agency is focusing its efforts on publicizing serious cases, issuing large penalties and working with district attorneys to bring forth criminal charges on unsafe employers. The agency also is sharing resources with the occupational health branch in the state’s Department of Public Health.

The current financial climate may make promulgating new standards difficult, but Widess said several standards already are in the works, including one that would improve the state’s lead standard and another on chemical permissible exposure limits. In addition to moving what is “already in the pipeline,” Widess said Cal/OSHA is keeping its eye on future standards so the agency is ready to move when the economy improves.

Widess stressed that enforcement will not be Cal/OSHA’s sole emphasis, and that she would like to increase the agency’s compliance assistance. But again, financial constraints make that difficult.

“If we had more resources, we could do far more consulting and education and outreach,” she said. Currently, the ratio of Cal/OSHA staff members to workers in the state is 1 to 98,000 – not ideal for either workers or employers, Widess noted.

Occupational health

Widess is committed to moving forward on occupational health. In one of her first actions as chief, she filled the 12-year vacancy for the deputy chief of health position by appointing Deborah Gold, who had been with the agency for several years and played a leadership role in the development of the airborne transmissible disease standards.

“We felt it was important to recognize in this appointment the importance of health work, of research and standards,” Widess said.

Although the airborne transmissible disease standards were promulgated during the previous administration, Widess said even greater emphasis needs to be placed on occupational health, given the various exposures that California workers can face.

She admitted that the agency lacks certain staff members with the right expertise – including scientists and doctors – to pursue new initiatives, but said Cal/OSHA is working to better equip its current workforce to deal with health issues.

The agency has begun “significant” occupational health training for field staff, including sampling methods, industrial hygiene and other similar in-depth training that staff has not received in several years. “We’re trying to … ensure our field staff is well-equipped to identify, cite and order a correction of health hazards as well as safety,” Widess said.

Federal review

As a State Plan state, California must answer to federal OSHA. Last year, the state was one of 25 State Plan states and territories to undergo a federal review of its occupational safety and health program.

Contrary to Cal/OSHA’s original response critiquing the Enhanced Federal Annual Monitoring and Evaluation report, Widess said she found the report helpful and spoke highly of the relationship between federal OSHA and her agency. Although Cal/OSHA is addressing some of the issues raised by the report, including closing cases promptly and issuing more serious citations, Widess said lack of staff and funding remains an issue.

“I think we are making all good efforts to improve, but we keep coming up against our resource limitation,” she said.

One resource the agency has been relying on – and potentially over-relying on, according to some critics – is a group of volunteers who evaluate the agency’s PELs, which Cal/OSHA is mandated to periodically review.

Freyman of Mercer ORC Networks said the group of volunteers is struggling to do the work on top of their full-time jobs, and the ranks have thinned. Several stakeholders believe Cal/OSHA should bring these experts into the agency to do the work instead of relying on freelance work.

“You’re drawing upon volunteers who are already coming to the table with a full plate and asking them to do more,” Freyman said. “Everybody is overwhelmed and overloaded.”

Widess defended the current volunteer system, calling it a “system that has worked” and has provided input from several different perspectives – a key component of successful standard-setting. She stressed, however, that her own staff performs research and plays a vital role in the process.

Legislative input

It is possible that Cal/OSHA’s destiny could be partially in the hands of lawmakers, who could introduce bills that direct the agency to pursue a particular agenda. With Brown having won the governorship and Democrats in control of both legislative chambers, everyone is on “the same team,” as Freyman put it, and such bills may have a good chance of becoming reality.

Legislation addressing the agency’s ergonomics standard (which proponents argue is not strong enough and critics argue is too strong) and chemical PELs has been floated as possibilities. Freyman speculated that a labor “wish list” of standards could be lined up for further action.

“It would seem the dynamics are in place to produce that result,” she said. “Yet we have to keep in mind [Cal/OSHA doesn’t] have the resources. So how does that play out?”

Widess said she welcomes lawmakers’ “input” and again stressed that her agency would play a large role in the development of any standard mandated by legislation. She said she believes her agency’s efforts to strategize and refocus its duties will be effective in identifying serious health and safety hazards, and she remains hopeful that the state’s hiring freeze will lift so fresh talent can be brought in to continue and expand the agency’s work.

“‘Stay tuned’ is the message,” Widess said. 

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