Bay Bridge Project: Audit Calls for Better Safety Oversight

A state audit released earlier this week suggests that California's workplace safety agency has been oblivious to injury underreporting on the $1.7 billion project to build an earthquake-proof replacement to the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The audit, conducted by the California State Auditor's Bureau of State Audits, questions the veracity of the injury reporting by the project's main contractor, Kiewit/FCI/Manson, and asserts that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (commonly referred to as Cal/OSHA) does not have a system in place to detect injury underreporting.

While KFM reports that its injury rate for the bridge replacement known as the Skyway project, which began in February 2002 is one-fourth the average rate of similar projects in the Bay Area, the Bureau of State Audits discovered 15 alleged workplace injuries that were not on KFM's injury reports. The audit bureau says it referred the potential recordable injuries to Cal/OSHA and the safety agency has launched a formal investigation.

While KFM, as of September 2005, has recorded 23 injuries in its annual injury reports for the Skyway project, the bureau says 52 current or former workers indicated in a survey that they were injured on the Skyway project. The audit also says 24 of those 52 injured employees said they felt pressure not to report their injuries.

According to the audit, 14 of the workers who responded to the survey said they feared termination or reprisal if they reported an injury. However, 47 respondents to the audit bureau's survey made "positive comments" about KFM's safety program.

Audit: Handling of Complaint Did Not Gibe with State Law

The audit contends that Cal/OSHA did not adequately follow up on three of six safety and health complaints filed by KFM employees on the Skyway project.

In April 2004, the audit says, Cal/OSHA received a complaint from a group of 10 former KSM workers alleging exposure to manganese from welding fumes above the permissible exposure level, as well as a number of other safety and health hazards on the Skyway project. When a Cal/OSHA inspector followed up and found two alleged serious violations that warranted citations, according to the audit, the agency only issued a letter to KFM informing the company of the alleged violations and giving it 30 days to abate the hazards, per an informal partnership agreement reached between Cal/OSHA and KFM.

Per the terms of the partnership agreement, Cal/OSHA inspectors are allowed extra access to the Skyway site above and beyond the agency's state mandate but cannot issue citations if KFM promptly corrects the unsafe conditions.

While Cal/OSHA praises the partnership approach "because the division is able to maintain a regular on-site presence," according to the audit, the audit bureau believes Cal/OSHA's handling of the April 2004 complaint "does not align with state law."

"When at a work site as the result of a complaint rather than as the result of the employer offering additional access, we would expect the division to consider that its presence is mandatory and comply with the state law requiring citations for serious violations," the audit says.

Audit: Cal/OSHA Needs System to Detect Underreporting

The audit makes several recommendations to Cal/OSHA and the California Department of Transportation (commonly referred to as Caltrans):

  • Cal/OSHA should develop a system to identify the underreporting of workplace injuries and evaluate the veracity of annual injury reports. If Cal/OSHA believes it lacks the resources to do this which the agency's acting chief has indicated it should ask the state legislature for more funding, the audit says.
  • If Cal/OSHA plans to use the partnership model in the future, the agency should create a plan for how it will operate under the model so it can provide proper safety oversight and be in sync with state law.
  • While Caltrans is not legally responsible for the safety of contractors' employees, it can do a better job of emphasizing safety. The audit bureau says it reviewed attendance records from a sampling of Caltrans construction managers and staff working on the Skyway project and found they met safety-training requirements just 76 percent of the time. The audit also found that only 66 percent of those sampled attended required safety "tailgate" sessions that are held every 10 days. The audit says Caltrans should make sure that its construction managers and staff on the Skyway project attend all required safety and training sessions.
  • Caltrans should restructure its organizational chart so that the Skyway project safety coordinator has the authority and independence to influence the safety of the project. Currently, "the project safety coordinator holds a non-supervisory position three levels below the Skyway project construction manager, which might hamper the flow of advice from the safety coordinator to top management," the audit says.

Reaction to the Audit

The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, which oversees Cal/OSHA, responded to the audit with a letter stating that it will study the options for evaluating the veracity of injury reporting on OSHA Form 300 logs.

Agency Undersecretary Rick Rice admits in the letter that errors were made in handling two of the three employee safety complaints mentioned in the audit and that the agency has taken steps to make sure those errors Rice attributed them to internal miscommunication never happen again.

However, Rice says he disagrees with the audit's assessment that Cal/OSHA's handling of the April 2004 complaint was "unlawful."

"It was clear that KFM was not hiding hazards and equally clear that they were willing to abate hazards promptly when they were discovered," Rice wrote.

Caltrans Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak, in a letter to the audit bureau, says the agency is upgrading its tracking of employee attendance at safety functions and has restructured its organization chart so that the project safety coordinator now reports to the Skyway construction manager.

State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote back: "The correction … does not present an appreciable difference from the condition we evaluated."

"As we recommended, the project safety coordinator should be independent of the managers whose safety performance the coordinator must oversee," Howle wrote.

The California Association of Professional Scientists, a trade association representing nearly 3,000 California scientists, believes "chronic understaffing" at Cal/OSHA is a key reason why the audit is so critical of the safety agency's enforcement on the Skyway project.

"Cal/OSHA does not have enough field inspectors to meet its day-to-day responsibilities, let alone effectively investigate complaints at a huge project like the Bay Bridge retrofit," said CAPS representative Matt Austin.

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