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Cal/OSHA Is Assailed for Cutting Fines in Safety Cases

December 02, 1987|BILL BILLITER | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The chairman of a key Assembly committee Tuesday accused the controversial state Division of Occupational Safety and Health of "callous disregard for the law" in dismissing or greatly reducing fines in more than 200 cases where companies have already been found guilty of serious workplace violations.

Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne), chairman of the Labor and Employment Committee, announced after a hearing of the panel that he will seek an investigation of Cal/OSHA by both the attorney general's and state auditor's offices.

Witnesses at the committee hearing said that Cal/OSHA administrators are needlessly ordering dismissal of cases on appeal, thereby hurting worker safety efforts. Witnesses also testified that the state is losing up to $1 million in fines and that families of dead or injured workers are losing up to 50% of their potential disability payments because of case dismissals by Cal/OSHA.

Robert Stranberg, the head of Cal/OSHA, repeatedly denied the charges during the four-hour hearing.

As Stranberg sat in the committee witness chair, Floyd and Sen. William Greene (D-Los Angeles) called for the ouster of Stranberg and all other "top-echelon" Cal/OSHA administrators. Greene, chairman of the Senate Industrial Relations Committee, took part in the Assembly committee hearing.

Cal/OSHA, the state agency that enforces worker safety laws, is in a legal state of limbo pending a decision by the state Supreme Court. Gov. George Deukmejian earlier this year moved to dismantle the agency by vetoing $7 million of its $8-million annual appropriation. The governor left $1 million to finance handling of appeals of Cal/OSHA cases.

In October, the 3rd District Court of Appeal said that Deukmejian had no legal right to dismantle the agency. The governor is appealing that ruling to the state Supreme Court.

While Cal/OSHA's continued existence is yet to be decided, the agency still has the legal right to pursue fines against private companies previously found guilty of workplace violations. About 350 such cases have been on appeal to various courts this year.

D. Robert Shuman, chief counsel for the state controller's office, testified that a controller's audit had found that Cal/OSHA this year has dismissed or reduced fines substantially. He said that of 325 cases on appeal this year, the total in possible fines was $1,035,807. But Shuman said the controller's office found that Cal/OSHA settled 47% of the cases for "an average of less than 13 cents on the dollar."

Shuman added: " . . . Cal/OSHA's legal representatives are proposing to let parties previously adjudged guilty of violating laws pertaining to worker safety off the hook with, in many cases, little more than a token payment, and in some cases with no payment at all."

In defense of Cal/OSHA, Stranberg told the committee that many cases on appeal are settled by the agency, or dismissed, because witnesses to the alleged workplace safety violations cannot be found. But Stranberg admitted "an error on our part" in dismissing a $3,575 fine against a company found guilty of a worker's death in San Jose because of unsafe use of a chemical that can destroy a human liver if breathed in close quarters.

Stranberg said the agency dismissed that case on appeal because "we didn't see the full file."

Dismissal of Fine Questioned

The committee also questioned Stranberg about the dismissal of a $62,400 fine against a company found guilty in the death of a worker in San Joaquin County when a trench collapsed, burying the worker alive. Stranberg said witnesses could not be found in the case, but San Joaquin County Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Taylor challenged that claim. Taylor said his office had successfully prosecuted a civil case against the construction company in the same death.

Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress), a member of the Labor and Employment Committee, told the hearing that she has "grave concerns" about Cal/OSHA's handling of the worker safety cases on appeal.

Committee Chairman Floyd said: "I think it's a crime. I believe that none of the leadership of this department has done what you are sworn to do." He said he believes the Supreme Court will reinstate Cal/OSHA, "and if they do, in all decency each and every one of you (top administrators in Cal/OSHA) ought to resign your jobs."

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