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Disney Safety Manager May Get State Post

Some watchdogs say naming a theme-park industry insider to run Cal/OSHA could create a conflict of interest.

September 08, 2004|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The safety manager at Disneyland is a top contender to run the state agency that enforces amusement park safety laws -- a possibility that is prompting concern among industry watchdogs.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to name Richard Warner as director of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health as early as this week, according to sources inside the agency.

The agency, known as Cal/OSHA, oversees workplace safety in industries as diverse as retail shops and oil refineries. Since 2000, it's been charged with inspecting rides and investigating accidents at theme parks.

Warner confirmed Tuesday that he was being considered for the post and said he hoped to be appointed. The governor's office declined to comment. The sources inside Cal/OSHA said Warner already had given notice to Disneyland that he would be leaving the company to take the agency job.

Warner's expected appointment comes as the state moves to finish drafting enforcement regulations for California's first amusement park safety law. Naming an industry insider to run Cal/OSHA could create a conflict of interest, safety advocates contend.

"We've had really good accident investigations, but that could change in a heartbeat," said Kathy Fackler, an amusement park safety activist who pushed for passage of the 1999 law. Fackler's then 5-year-old son lost part of his foot in a 1998 accident on the park's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride.

Warner was an industrial hygienist with Cal/OSHA in the early 1980s before becoming a safety officer for Southern California Edison Co., the Rosemead-based utility. After leaving Edison in 2003, he ran a consulting firm until he took the safety manager's post at Disneyland in May. The park is operated by Burbank-based Walt Disney Co.

Warner's "specialized knowledge" from working at Disneyland could prove helpful to Cal/OSHA's attempts to regulate "the most complicated theme park in the nation," said David Koenig, an author who's written extensively about Disney. Hal Lindsey, director of corporate health and safety at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, praised Warner for possessing "a wealth of background" in his field.

But Lisa Odabashian, a senior policy analyst at the West Coast office of Consumers Union in San Francisco, countered that Warner's ties to Disney, which contributed $10,000 to Schwarzenegger's political action committee this year, "don't pass the smell test."

Efforts to fully implement the 4-year-old amusement park law were delayed when Schwarzenegger, soon after his election last year, put a halt to writing new regulations that affect business. Odabashian said she feared the theme park regulations could be watered down if Warner got the state post.

The Cal/OSHA permanent director's job has been vacant since John Howard, a physician and lawyer, left the agency in 2002.

Disneyland has been plagued by a spate of accidents in recent years -- most of them before Warner arrived at the park.

Last September, a 22-year-old Gardena man was killed and 10 other riders were injured in a Big Thunder Mountain derailment. Inspectors from Cal/OSHA blamed the accident on poor maintenance, lack of management oversight and poorly trained ride operators.

Since then, two empty cars crashed during a test run in April, and five people suffered minor injuries when two trains collided July 8. Disneyland wasn't fined by Cal/OSHA in any of the Big Thunder Mountain incidents.

In all, nine people have died since the theme park opened in 1955, but most of the accidents were caused by unsafe rider behavior.

Disney executives declined to comment on Warner's possible appointment. The company said it remained "committed to driving continuous improvement and upholding the high standards that keep us at the forefront of ride safety."

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