House Hearing: State Plans Need Greater Oversight

Nov. 2, 2009
At an Oct. 29 U.S. House Education and Labor Committee hearing, witnesses stressed that stronger federal oversight is needed for state-run health and safety programs to ensure that states provide workers with basic on-the-job protections. The hearing followed a review of Nevada OSHA that found significant gaps in the state agency’s protections.

“Basic oversight of state plans is not only important in Nevada, but it is vital to the 57 million American workers whose health and safety protections are enforced by a state plan,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the committee. “While some states are running innovative programs, it is clear that additional reviews of state plans are warranted.”

Under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, a state can operate its own workplace health and safety program as long as they meet basic federal minimum standards. Twenty-seven states and territories operate such programs and are partially funded by the federal government.

A federal review of Nevada’s OSHA program found that the state failed to cite employers for clear hazards, didn't properly train inspectors on construction hazards, didn't follow up to ensure that dangerous conditions were fixed, failed to include worker representatives in inspections and even failed to notify families of deceased workers of investigations or give them the chance to speak to investigators. Last year, only 29 percent of Nevada’s citations were classified as “serious” compared to 44 percent for other state plans and 77 percent for federal OSHA.

“State plan standards and enforcement must be at least as effective as federal OSHA in providing safe and healthful employment to workers in the state,” said Jordan Barab, acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. “Federal OSHA identified a number of serious concerns about the Nevada plan.”

Nevada OSHA: Funding Concerns

Donald Jayne, the administrator of Nevada’s Division of Industrial Relations and the state plan designee for Nevada’s Occupational Safety and Health Program, testified at the hearing and acknowledged that improvements are necessary.

“I know Nevada OSHA needs work. Quite a bit of work. But I am here to tell you Nevada OSHA is not a wreck. The program should not be junked; it just needs to be repaired and properly maintained,” Jayne said in his testimony. “In moving forward, we should not forget about the people who work for Nevada OSHA. Like employees of federal OSHA and other state plan states, our employees are committed to enforcing occupational safety and health standards.”

Jayne added that while Nevada OSHA is committed to change, budget constraints and financial limitations may hamper their ability to quickly address all issues.

“As federal OSHA increases its oversight of state plans, we are compelled to ask you implement an equitable and consistent formula to fund state plan programs. The current formula is antiquated and inadequate. If you want state plans to succeed, you must address the funding formula,” he said.

“Nevada will take the lead in addressing issues raised in the federal OSHA report, but we need your support and assistance,” he added.

Additional Reviews

Barab also announced that federal OSHA will undertake additional reviews of state-based health and safety programs similar to the one they agency completed on Nevada. Franklin Mirer, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the City University of New York, testified that additional reviews are warranted because states that operate their own health and safety plan often have lower rates of citations than federal OSHA.

“The OSHA report, and the press reports, depict failures of the enforcement process in the Nevada state plan,” said Mirer. “Compared to OSHA, state plans in general issue fewer citations classified as higher gravity, including serious, willful, failure to abate and repeated. Federal OSHA can take this opportunity to improve its oversight of state plans.”

The Education and Labor Committee first examined construction safety problems in a 2008 hearing, including a string of deaths during the recent building boom on the Las Vegas strip. The hearing found that even when Nevada issued fines to employers for operating an unsafe workplace, those sanctions were often later reduced or even eliminated.

Miller said that he is planning additional oversight activities into this issue.

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