The state job safety agency, which Gov. George Deukmejian is seeking to dismantle, has the toughest tunnel safety standards in the world, a group of experts, including some of the agency's inspectors, told a legislative hearing Friday.
More than 50 major tunnels, including several for Metro Rail in Los Angeles, are being built or planned in the state.
Permitting Cal/OSHA to be replaced by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has markedly less-stringent tunneling rules, would be a "return to the Dark Ages" for underground workers, said Henry McIntire, a veteran Cal/OSHA mining and tunneling inspector. "It saddens my heart," he said.
McIntire was subpoenaed to appear in Los Angeles before a legislative panel consisting of Sen. Bill Greene (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Senate Committee on Industrial Relations, and Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne), chairman of the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment. They are leading a vituperative fight to stop the governor from abolishing Cal/OSHA, contending that it would seriously weaken protection for workers.
The governor has said that eliminating Cal/OSHA would save $8 million a year and that workers would still be protected by federal OSHA.
However, federal OSHA has only general safety rules for tunneling, said Byron Ishkanian, head of Cal/OSHA's mining and tunneling unit, who was also subpoenaed to appear. Ishkanian called California's very specific tunnel safety law "the best law in the world" for underground work, with "just the right combination of strict safety for the men and practicality."
He noted that the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies employ California's standards, rather than the federal government's, for their own underground work.
California's standards grew out of a 1971 tragedy when 17 tunnel workers died in a methane gas explosion in a Metropolitan Water District tunnel they were building in Sylmar. Since then, Ishkanian said, 3,000 tunnels have been bored in California, and 11 tunnel workers have died, but there has not been one gas ignition underground. "That's a record that can't be matched anywhere," he said.
Difference in Standards
To illustrate a difference in federal and state standards, Ishkanian noted that methane is known to be explosive only when it constitutes a certain percentage of the air, ranging from 5% to 15%. Cal/OSHA requires tunnels to be evacuated when methane reaches 1%. Federal law allows work to resume at 1%.
Federal OSHA has been attempting to draft a more complete tunneling safety standard for 15 years, officials of that agency have said in interviews.
Jack R. Fenton, the former Montebello assemblyman who was an architect of the state law, noted that Cal/OSHA has classified all the Los Angeles Metro Rail tunnels as gassy, and he said he believes there is "a very good chance" of a Sylmar-like explosion if the law is scrapped.
However, James E. Crawley, the Southern California Rapid Transit District's director of engineering for Metro Rail, said the agency has already incorporated all Cal/OSHA tunneling standards and recommendations into its binding contracts. Crawley praised Cal/OSHA inspectors, saying their help has been invaluable in planning the subway.