Cal/OSHA Nixes Lone Medical Officer Position

If you were planning on applying for the vacant medical officer position within the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health's (Cal/OSHA), you're too late.

The position has been eliminated much to the chagrin of the California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS), which is the union representing Cal/OSHA's inspectors.

Pointing to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency's (LWDA) decision to abolish the last physician position left in the Cal/OSHA medical unit, CAPS local representative Garret Brown remarked: "Cal/OSHA is dying a death of a thousand cuts."

The only registered nurse remaining will be working in southern California, while northern California will be left with no medical personnel.

The number of medical personnel in Cal/OSHA has dwindled since 1975; back then it had seven physicians and three registered nurses. The last physician with Cal/OSHA was Dr. Larry Rose M.D., MPH, who retired in 2004 and was once at risk of losing his position while former Gov. Grey Davis was in office.

After Rose's retirement, the position remained vacant and the Department of Health Services made a temporary and informal contract with Cal/OSHA to "loan" one of its doctors on a "need-be" basis until the position was filled. With the position now eliminated from the division, this will be Cal/OSHA's only medical resource.

LWDA refused the opportunity to comment for this story.

Brown: Ergonomics Enforcement Will Be Compromised

Brown said that the "stop-gap measure" would have a severe impact on various key programs that depend on the medical unit's participation.

According to Brown, eliminating the position ends the enforcement of the nation's only ergonomics standard, as the agency issues citations if it can prove that more than one employee has had repetitive motion injury when performing the same work activity. This would be difficult to prove with no physician on site, as the Appeals Board law judges have refused to accept non-physician evaluations, he said.

"Abolishing this position couldn't come at a worse time, especially when Cal/OSHA has been preparing for the bird flu pandemic," he said.

According to Brown, other programs that depend on the medical unit and will suffer as a result of cutting out the position include:

  • Evaluation of employer medical surveillance programs;
  • Medical expert testimony in appeal hearings;
  • Evaluation of bloodborne pathogen exposure control programs; and
  • Evaluation of adverse health effects from chemical exposures.

Cal/OSHA: Position Cut Won't Make Much of a Difference

Cal/OSHA spokesperson Dean Fryer countered that services will not be reduced as a result of the medical officer position being axed; he asserted that eliminating the position would not make much of a difference since the job has been vacant for 20 years.

"We have been in collaboration with the California Department of Health Services since 1991 and there haven't been any problems," Fryer said. "They have excellent and efficient medical personnel at our disposal. This is just a way to provide functions more efficiently."

Funding, he said, was locked up with the position, and LWDA was looking to cut costs in the budget and decided to eliminate the position, as it was vacant. The money saved would be used to spread it more efficiently across the division, he said.

Brown said the measure does not make much sense financially.

"The alleged salary savings will be dwarfed by costs of contracting out for medical services Cal/OSHA is required by law to conduct," he said.

Currently, Cal/OSHA is the only state OSHA office to have a medical unit. States with their own OSHA-approved safety and health programs are not required to have one, according to a federal OSHA spokesperson.

Cal/OSHA Facing Other Challenges

Brown said he hopes this isn't the downfall of the division. Already short-staffed on inspectors (see "Cal/OSHA Inspectors Want More Money for New Hires") and having been criticized in a state audit for its oversight of the San Francisco Bay Bridge project (See "Bay Bridge Project: Audit Calls for Better Safety Oversight"), Cal/OSHA has other things to worry about.

At present, the division has 193 field officers, covering compliance, high-hazard industries, process safety management and mining and tunneling. That is a ratio of one inspector for about every 91,191 workers and 6,100 workplaces.

In addition, one or more of the top three leadership positions within Division of Occupational Safety and Health the division managing Cal/OSHA -- has been vacant for "significant periods" in the last several years. Recently the vacant chief's post was filled by Len Welsh, who still has to be officially nominated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and confirmed by the state Senate, Brown said.

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