Cal-OSHA Faces Tough Questioning From State Lawmakers

The tables were turned on top Cal-OSHA administrators when they were asked some\r\ntough questions recently about the operation of their agency.

The tables were turned on top administrators of the California Health and Safety Administration (Cal-OSHA) when they were asked some tough questions about the operation of their agency.

Members of the California Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee asked Stephen J. Smith, director of the California Department of Industrial Relations, Dr. John Howard, chief of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, and Vicky Heva, deputy chief of Cal-OSHA enforcement, about claims that it can take several weeks before a Cal-OSHA inspector arrives at a workplace to begin accident investigations. In at least one case, according to an investigation by the Orange County Register, an inspector showed up 82 days after the report of a workplace accident.

The lawmakers also wanted to know if, as reported, some inspectors do not interview witnesses who do not speak English. If true, that could be particularly problematic, given California''s large Hispanic and Asian populations and the fact that nearly half of the employees killed in workplace accidents in Orange County were immigrants.

An investigation by the Orange County Register prompted the Senate hearings.

The newspaper investigated all 64 workplace fatalities in Orange County from 1998 to 2000 and found what the newspaper says are "widespread shortcomings" in the way Cal-OSHA handled those cases.

The agency blamed some of its problems on staffing shortage, a problem that might not be resolved anytime soon, since California Go. Gray Davis is calling for a hiring freeze.

"We will be doing close monitoring of [our] offices in light of the issues that were raised by the [Senate] panel, " said Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer.

He noted that according to agency figures, are begun within 24 hours of a fatality report in 70 percent of the cases. In the other 30 percent, said Fryer, there are a number of valid reasons why the start of the investigation was delayed. These reasons include: the case did not fall under the jurisdiction of Cal-OSHA; the case was originally reported as an injury accident but turned into a fatality; and finally, some cases are not reported to the agency.

"There are very few cases where investigations that should be conducted by [Cal-OSHA] are not started within 24 hours," added Fryer. He said that Smith and Howard promised legislators that they would do everything possible to improve response time.

Fryer acknowledged that the agency knows it needs more bilingual inspectors, noting that the state requires all state employees who act as translators to be certified. He said the agency is in the process of certifying more employees to be translators.

Fryer also talked about an innovative program Cal-OSHA instituted about a year ago to recruit bi-lingual employees. The agency is visiting college campuses and talking to bilingual students studying occupational safety and industrial hygiene. The state is offering to hire the students as "junior" industrial hygienists, have them certified as translators, and offer them on-the-job training in occupational safety and health and industrial hygiene.

The program originally started as a way for Cal-OSHA to recruit employees in a tough job market, said Fryer. The agency was at a disadvantage, trying to recruit experienced safety professionals for what the state pays versus the higher rate paid by private employers. New graduates are more willing to accept a lower rate of pay for training and education opportunities offered by Cal-OSHA.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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