Has Cal/OSHA Lost Too Many Inspectors?

March 5, 2004
California's state plan OSHA program has lost more than three-quarters of its inspectors since 1980, while its civilian labor force has grown by over 50 percent in the same time period, according to information obtained from Cal/OSHA's inspectors' union.

The California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS) asserts there are now 33 percent more fish and game wardens than workplace health and safety inspectors.

"There is no evidence that California is not meeting its program requirements," countered an OSHA official. "OSHA does not assess the enforcement of a state occupational safety and health program solely by the number of compliance personnel."

The year 1980 is a significant one for California because in that year benchmarks calling for 334 safety and 471 health compliance officers were established for the state's occupational safety program.

But it is unclear what falling under the federal benchmark means. No state program has ever been abolished for failing to meet federal OSHA requirements. Moreover, meeting the state benchmark is a requirement for final state plan approval, but California has not sought final approval; and California, like any state, can continue to avoid seeking final approval indefinitely.

The OSH Act requires that state plans be "at least as effective" as the federal program, including the development and enforcement of standards, and assurance of employee and employer rights. "Cal/OSHA does not believe that its enforcement effectiveness has declined," asserted a spokesperson for the agency. "In fact, our information is that the number of injuries and fatalities in California workplaces are in a state of decline, and this trend has existed for several years."

According to the union, in recent years, whenever someone leaves the agency or retires, the position is left vacant and eventually abolished.

"We're dying a death of 1,000 cuts," complained one knowledgeable Cal/OSHA source.

Even though the federal government has funded 238 inspector positions for fiscal year 2004, CAPS maintains that due to unfilled positions and long-term leaves, there are only 176.5 field inspectors actually working.

Given California's famous budget deficit, the question arises as to what is happening to the money not being spent on the vacant positions.

"OSHA state plan grants are funded based on the number of positions allocated by the state budget process for the state OSHA program," replied a federal official. "In any program, staff turnover is normal due to retirements and resignations and vacant positions may not be filled immediately due to the need to comply with state civil service requirements or temporary state budget conditions."

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