California Worker Safety Net Badly Frayed
State Failing Federal Enforcement Standards; Fewer Inspectors than 25 Years Ago
Washington, DC — Workers in California have less protection on the job now than at any other time in a generation due to the implosion of its Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA), according to an in-depth report by a former senior executive. Citing the report, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) today filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) seeking sanction against Cal/OSHA because it has fallen below federal minimum worker protection standards that are a condition of it receiving federal funding.
The report by Garrett Brown (MPH, CIH), a 20-year Cal/OSHA veteran whose career culminated in a stint as a Special Assistant to the Chief, documents that under Governor Jerry Brown support for Cal/OSHA has decreased from levels under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a result –
- California has fewer workplace health and safety inspectors than it did 25 years ago, although the workforce is substantially larger now;
- California has one of the worst inspector-to-worker ratios in the country (one inspector to more than 109,000 workers), more than three times lower than Oregon or Washington and nearly twice as thin as federal OSHA staffing in states without their own programs; and
- Cal/OSHA has been forced to cut way back on health inspections for exposures to toxic chemicals as well as inspections of dangerous workplaces where low-wage, immigrant or non-union workers rarely file complaints.
“California has substantially more game wardens—253—than it does workplace safety and health inspectors—170,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that occupational exposures kill an estimated 40,000 Americans each year, making it the nation’s 8th leading cause of death. “California likes to pride itself as a national leader in many areas, but its workers are among the least protected in the country.”
Cal/OSHA draws no money from the state General Fund but instead operates on user fees and a federal OSHA grant which pays half of all Cal/OSHA costs, provided that the state meets federal minimum standards. But the report finds that due to unspent funds and low staffing, Cal/OSHA can no longer even come close to meeting federal benchmarks or state law for, among other tasks –
- Responding to worker complaints of unsafe or unhealthy working conditions in a timely fashion;
- Doing follow-up inspections of serious violators; and
- Closing safety and health inspections so that enforcement action may be taken.
“In its last audit, OSHA found that more than 30 inspector positions promised in California’s grant application had disappeared but the federal agency took no action,” added Ruch, whose organization filed a complaint with U.S. OSHA requesting that the state face financial and other sanctions unless immediate correction of these deficiencies occurs. “Federal OSHA is supposed to make sure the state complies with federal benchmarks and standards, but it appears to have confused oversight with overlook.”