Gov. George Deukmejian's plan to abolish the state's occupational health and safety agency would roll back worker protections against hazardous materials, retard response to complaints of unsafe working conditions and result in fewer criminal prosecutions, according to labor leaders, business officials, prosecutors and occupational health physicians.
Organized labor and the governor's Democratic opponents in the Legislature already are mounting an effort to dissuade Deukmejian from his plan, and hope to enlist the help of organizations ranging from the American Cancer Society to the California Medical Assn. in the campaign.
Moreover, business organizations that have been critical of worker safety programs in the past, such as the California Manufacturing Assn., are reported to be divided on the issue. Although California's worker safety regulations generally are stronger and more comprehensive than the federal standards that would replace them under the governor's plan, many business executives say they find the state agency more convenient to deal with and more accessible.
Deukmejian, in his 1987 budget proposal, included abolition of the California Industrial Relations Department's division of Occupational Safety and Health, commonly called Cal/OSHA, and most of its components. Under the governor's plan, which he could institute virtually unilaterally, principal responsibility for insuring worker safety in California would fall to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (federal OSHA). The governor said such a move would eliminate 366 jobs and save the state $8 million in the 1987-88 fiscal year and would result in no reduction in worker safety.
Currently, California is one of 24 states certified by the federal government to operate its own worker safety agency on the grounds that the state program is equivalent to or stronger than federal rules. In return, the federal government provides almost half of the funding for Cal/OSHA.
Considered a Leader
California has had a job safety program since 1913 and generally has been considered a leader in the field.
"I view this as a giant step backward in public health," said Dr. John Peters, a professor of occupational health at the University of Southern California who served on the Cal/OSHA Standards Board from 1981 through 1986. "California has better and more frequent inspections and more up-to-date standards (than the federal government)."
As an example of the gap between state and federal standards, Jan Chatten Brown, special assistant to the Los Angeles County district attorney for occupational safety and health and environmental protection, pointed to California's so-called "right to know" law, administered by Cal/OSHA. The law requires that almost all California workers be given information about any potentially hazardous materials that they may use. Federal law mandates only that workers in manufacturing jobs be given such information. The federal law would preempt the California statute if Cal/OSHA is abolished, according to Brown.
She also lamented the fact that the federal government has not set permissible exposure limits on 170 widely used toxic substances already regulated by Cal/OSHA. Those state standards would be preempted, too, she said, as would California's extensive rules governing demolition of structures containing asbestos, a known cause of lung cancer.
Brown said failure to maintain the strictest safety procedures for asbestos removal would have an effect that went beyond laborers involved in the work. She said that if such operations were not conducted properly, excess asbestos fiber could be disseminated into the air, creating potential hazards.
"Failure to have sufficient standards in the workplace can have a deleterious effect on the community," she said. "No one should think it's only the workers who will suffer."
When he announced his plan to abolish the agency, Deukmejian asserted that the federal government could do as good a job as the state has done. He said it would be "wasteful" to continue the state program when federal OSHA could step in.
Ronald T. Rinaldi director of the state Department of Industrial Relations, said Deukmejian was concerned about the fact that the percentage of the Cal/OSHA budget provided by the federal OSHA had shrunk from 50% to 43% in recent years. About $14.2 million of the current $31.5-million budget came from Washington, according to Rinaldi.
Rinaldi said he concurs with the governor's decision and also said he did not think California workers would suffer if the proposed change comes to pass.
But many people, including some who have been critical of Cal/OSHA in the past, sharply disagreed.
"The mere balancing of a budget is not the way to decide (the feature of) a program whose goal is to save lives," said Allen Nacenski, manager of operational health and safety at Redondo Beach-based TRW Inc.