Feds Crack Down On Cal/OSHA

California's watchdog for workplace safety is under new pressure after a federal audit released Tuesday found serious problems at Cal/OSHA and ordered the agency to respond with fixes.

The findings mirrored many of the issues uncovered in a SoCal Connected special investigation which aired in January.

The U.S. Department of Labor found that the state agency charged with ensuring workplace health and safety is severely under-staffed, responds slowly to complaints of job hazards and has been too cozy with employers who file appeals to citations.

Cal/OSHA has only 16 percent of the necessary health inspectors and about 37 percent of the safety inspectors required for a workforce the size of California's, according to the audit, which also found deficiencies with the agency's documentation of workers' exposure to hazards.

SoCal's investigation found Cal/OSHA's appeals board had dismissed controversial cases because of botched paperwork that mislabeled a company's legal name and because inspectors had retired before the appeals process finally began. SoCal's review of the agency's appeals process also found that fines for companies whose employees had been severely injured were often reduced to a small fraction of the original fine.

The audit found 18 problem areas and issued corresponding corrective recommendations. Key findings in the audit include:

  • Lack of a core curriculum to train new inspectors and for the continued training of all inspectors
  • Delays in Cal/OSHA responding to complaints of job hazards; higher than national average delays in issuance of citations following inspections, which lead to delays in correction of hazards
  • 96 percent of "whistleblower" complaints by workers not investigated within the required time period, and investigators failing to interview all relevant witnesses
  • Failure to communicate with the families of victims killed on the job about the investigation process and its results, and failure to inform union representatives about their right to participate in the inspection process

"While we found many positives in the state programs, we also found deficiencies including concerns about identification of hazards, proper classification of violations, proposed penalty levels, and failure to follow up on violations to ensure that workplace safety and health problems are corrected," said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for federal OSHA, in a news release.

The state agency accused the federal audit of failing to account for Cal/OSHA's successes and how severe state budget deficits have hindered its efforts.

Cal/OSHA also responded to accusations that it issues a low percentage of serious violations. "Taken out of context, the rate of issuance of serious citations is a statistic that is of little value and potentially misleading," California Director of Industrial Relations John Duncan wrote last week in comments on the federal audit.

The agency has 30 days to submit a response that includes a detailed plan for addressing findings and recommendations.

Click here to view the full audit (warning: large file).

Watch the original SoCal Connected investigation below.

SoCal Connected on KCET

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