Southern California Edison Co. used faulty workplace safety data -- and in some cases may have suppressed reports of on-the-job injuries -- over the last seven years to win performance-related bonuses from the state, the utility acknowledged Thursday.
Edison told the California Public Utilities Commission staff that it would forgo or return to the agency $35 million in payments that the company said were based on flawed safety ratings. Many of the ratings were distorted by inadvertent omissions, others by what Edison called "inappropriate" efforts by managers to hide reportable incidents.
In some cases, Edison found evidence that supervisors contacted outside medical personnel to influence treatment, change medical records or downgrade the seriousness of an injury. Other times, Edison said, its managers encouraged employees to dodge safety reporting requirements by undergoing physical therapy or using vacation days during recovery.
"I was pretty flabbergasted," said Robert Cagen, a PUC staff attorney who attended a closed meeting Thursday with Edison executives. "What this appears to be is an incentive ... to underreport injuries. That's what's happened here."
The injury statistics are part of a 1997 PUC program that rewards -- or fines -- utilities based on customer satisfaction, employee safety, service reliability and financial results. The information is collected and submitted by the utilities.
The admission by Edison, a subsidiary of Rosemead-based Edison International, marks the second time this year that it has found problems with data it gave regulators to win ratepayer-funded bonuses. In June, Edison pledged to return $14.4 million because employees and managers rigged customer-satisfaction surveys.
In that episode, managers and lower-level employees in Edison's service planning department systematically erased or changed the phone numbers of unhappy customers to make sure that they couldn't be reached for the surveys. Some employees substituted their own phone numbers or those of friends and relatives to assure themselves of high ratings.
Edison said the glitches in its safety reporting stemmed mostly from its failure to record or report minor first-aid matters, such as requests for bandages or ice packs. It described the more egregious behavior involving supervisors as limited to about 50 "random instances."
"We've discovered that we simply never set up a comprehensive system of tracking and reporting the first-aid cases," said Stephen Pickett, Edison's general counsel. As for the $35 million, he added, "we're just going to offer to give it all back because we don't have a database to support it."
The $35 million includes $20 million in safety awards already paid to Edison, plus $15 million pending for 2001 through 2003. Regulators are likely to return the money to Edison customers by offsetting other utility charges rather than through direct refunds.
Edison said it had found evidence that company incentives to reward good safety practices -- including financial compensation and recognition lunches -- "may have discouraged the reporting of some incidents" and may have produced "pressure to not report injuries." In some instances, employees delayed reporting injuries to keep them out of year-end results, Edison told the PUC.
Some incidents should have been reported to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health but were not, according to Edison. The company said it had alerted Cal/OSHA officials and would file amended logs with the agency. It said it didn't know whether Cal/OSHA would take further action.
Cal/OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer could not immediately confirm that the agency was aware of Edison's reporting failures. But he said, "When you have individuals who will take measures to prevent incidents from being reported, that is a serious infraction and could result in penalties to the company."
A representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 47, the utility's largest union, with 4,200 employee members, said that Edison had briefed labor officials about the safety data problems but that the company did not mention that managers had contacted and tried to sway medical personnel.
"That surprises me that somebody would actually try to influence a medical professional," said Patrick Lavin, business manager for Local 47. He added, however: "It's not something running rampant through the company. I'm going to hear about something like that if it were that pervasive."
Edison said it would issue final reports on the safety-records situation by early December.
The utility noted that its investigation had not uncovered problems with data involving the number and duration of electricity outages and other measures of system reliability. Because operational information is relatively hard to tamper with, Pickett said, "it's much less likely that we encounter the same sort of thing that we encountered in customer satisfaction."
Robert Finkelstein, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Utility Reform Network, isn't so sure.
"Every decision maker, certainly the Public Utilities Commission and the California Legislature, ought to be very concerned about the credibility of anything Edison tells them at this point," Finkelstein said. "We need somebody other than Edison to determine what happened here and how far it went."