The U.S. Labor Department issued a critical report on enforcement of workplace safety in California on Tuesday and ordered the state to fix myriad problems, including poor training of safety inspectors and delays in responding to complaints.
Federal officials took aim at the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, saying, among other things, that inspectors do not always review a company's history statewide before deciding whether to cite it for repeat violations. They also found that the division's appeals process "falls short."
The problems found with California's program were "relatively serious, especially with the appeals board," said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health.
The Labor Department's review mirrors many of the findings of a Times investigation last fall that found the division's appeals board repeatedly reduced or dismissed penalties levied by health and safety inspectors, even in situations in which workers died or were seriously injured.
The Times highlighted the case of Bimbo Bakeries USA, where nine employees have lost parts of fingers or a limb in several California plants since 2003. After most of those accidents, investigators found that baking machines did not have proper guards to prevent employees from reaching in to dislodge dough that got stuck. It is not clear that inspectors recognized the problem as a pattern across the plants.
Many of the penalties levied by the Cal/OSHA were dismissed or reduced on technicalities by judges working for the appeals board, so the company wasn't required to immediately fix hazards.
The Times focused on several serious examples, including the case of a worker on the Golden Gate Bridge, Kevin Scott Noah, who plummeted 50 feet to his death.
A Cal/OSHA investigator concluded that the contractor had not provided employees with scaffolds; it issued three "serious" citations and a $26,000 fine, records show.
The contractor appealed on the grounds that Cal/OSHA had issued the citations to Shimmick Obayashi, the name listed on the company's business cards. The company's full name was the Shimmick Construction Co. Inc./Obayashi Corp.
An administrative law judge tossed the case out, writing that Cal/OSHA had failed to determine the company's legal name.
Candice Traeger, chairwoman of Cal/OSHA's appeals board, could not be reached Tuesday for comment
Workplace safety advocates hailed the federal government's action, saying it underscored that safety in California has been suffering for years.
"I don't think people realize how broken our system is," said Gail Bateson, executive director of Worksafe, a nonprofit that advocates for workers.
But Len Welsh, the chief of the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, took issue with some of the more than 40 findings about his division.
"They got a lot of stuff frankly wrong, and embarrassingly so," he said. For example, he said, one finding accuses the division of not opening investigations into seven fatal accidents quickly enough. But another finding says there were two such accidents. When his office questioned the findings, federal officials couldn't explain the discrepancy, he said.
Cal/OSHA and the appeals board have 30 days to respond to the report and develop corrective plans.
The general review of California's program was part of a larger examination of all 25 U.S. states that run their own workplace safety programs under the jurisdiction of the federal program. Serious problems were also found with Hawaii's program, which could be taken over by the federal government.