California ranks first in the nation in workplace safety despite safety enforcement and workers' compensation systems that are under sharp criticism within the state, according to a survey released Tuesday.
The survey by the National Safe Workplace Institute, a nonprofit research group in Chicago, ranked each state using a formula based on such factors as illness and injury prevention, enforcement of safety laws and workers' compensation programs.
California did not rank first in any single category, but received high marks for injury prevention, safety enforcement and prosecution, and it performed well enough in other categories to be judged best overall.
For that reason, the institute's director, Joseph Kinney, said that California is not so much a role model for the country as it is a leader in battling workplace-safety problems because it has made the issue a priority.
"California has addressed the components of occupational injury and illness prevention more than any state," Kinney said in an interview. "Does that mean it is adequate in each component? No.
"The debate that's occurred in California is the kind of debate that really needs to occur throughout the country," he said.
Initial reaction from workplace specialists signaled that Kinney's report is unlikely to cool that debate or otherwise reduce calls for additional changes in worker protections. But some observers agreed that much of the criticism--that workplace-safety enforcement in California is too lax, and that the costs of the $10-billion workers compensation system are out of control--stems in part from Californians' willingness to address the issues as well as the severity of the problems.
"In many of these cases California has been on the leading edge of the issue, and so there's going to be a fair amount of noise because a lot of people are looking at it," said John Duncan, a deputy director at the state Department of Industrial Relations, whose units include California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/-OSHA), which enforces state workplace safety laws.
But Fred Main, general counsel of the California Chamber of Commerce, embraced the survey as evidence that criticism of businesses' safety efforts is sometimes overplayed, and that some reform efforts are too costly to the state's employers relative to what further benefits the changes might accomplish for workers.
"California is a safe place in which to do business and to work, and many of the incremental changes being proposed may be unnecessary protections," Main said. "The scales need to be balanced a bit more."
Yet the Assn. of California Insurance Cos., whose members are particularly angry about the spiraling costs in workers' compensation claims, said that system does need changing regardless of how well California scored in the survey.
"Unless we get some action in 1992, there will be serious obstacles to protecting injured workers" under the system, said Robert Gore, the trade group's spokesman. He was referring to insurers' complaints about rising litigation and fraud in workers' compensation claims.
California was followed in the NSWI's ranking by New Jersey, Illinois and New York (tied for third) and Massachusetts. At the other end, Arkansas came in last, just below Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Within the areas of prevention and enforcement, Kinney's survey evaluated how well states limit toxins used in manufacturing (for which California got high grades) and whether states impose stiff fines for major workplace accidents (California was average).
In workers' compensation, the survey evaluated not just the generosity of payments to injured workers, but also costs to employers and whether state-imposed workers' compensation insurance rates are adequate and fair.
In other words, the survey was not meant to judge workplace safety merely from the worker's viewpoint, Kinney said. "I would take exception to anyone saying we looked at this from a single perception," he said.
California scored well in prevention in part because of a state law that went into effect in 1991 that requires businesses to have injury- and illness-prevention and review plans, which often are drafted with employee involvement.
"This is part of a general trend away from the compliance side" of workplace safety "to the preventive side," said Duncan.
Although Duncan's agency, Cal/OSHA, got only average marks from the survey, California overall scored well in enforcing workplace safety laws.
For instance, Kinney has praised such programs as the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Environmental Crimes/OSHA Division, headed by David Guthman, which investigates and prosecutes workplace safety violations.
"It is, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg" in stopping safety abuse, Guthman said. "We could use more people who are devoted to enforcement and regulation in this area. People get injured or killed because basic common-sense precautions are still not in place."