Tuesday, April 19, 2005

More KFM Flu: Neglected Workers and a Suffering Safety Agency

I wrote last week about KFM Joint Venture, the chief contractor on the Oakland Bay Bridge project that earned it's outstanding safety record by punishing workers who were injured and rewarding those who did not report injuries. And then there was the little matter of the "KFM Flu", a lung disease suffered by KFM welders because they were overexposed to manganese welding fumes and not provided with proper respirators. Despite that, Cal/OSHA though their safety record was so great that the safety agency formed a partnership with them.

Meanwhile, exposure to toxic welding fumes continued. The KFM workers complained to Cal/OSHA last Fall about the fumes, but their complaints kind of fell through the cracks. OSHA didn't bother to look into the workers' complaints for six months until Tribune reporters asked the agency about them while researching the original story a few weeks ago.

But it's not like the Cal/OSHA inspectors didn't have an opportunity to detect the hazard.
Meanwhile, Cal-OSHA inspectors have been on the new eastern span job site every week or two for nearly a year but apparently never asked, looked or climbed down holes to see what equipment the workers were using.

"The guys were on the site throughout, but did they ever specifically look at this complaint? No, I don't think so," [Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean]Fryer said.

"Would it have been diligent for us to go and take a look? Yeah, I would say most likely. Did we? No."

The reasons? Changes in the inspectors' assignments, the fact that it wasn't consider to be an "imminent danger, and, who knows?


I'm not sure what the problem is, but before just reflexively blaming the inspectors, let's look at what might be some of the root causes of this problem -- organizational and resource problems at Cal/OSHA that were illuminated recently by the California Association of Professional Scientists -- the Cal/OSHA inspectors' union.

For example:

  • Cal/OSHA has not had a permanent Chief since July 2002 and has not had a Deputy Chief for Health since November 2000. The last time all three top Cal/OSHA chief/deputy chief positions were filled was October 2000.
  • In 1975, the Cal/OSHA Medical Unit had seven physicians and three registered nurses. In 2005, 30 years later, it has one physician and one nurse.
  • In February 2005, California had 232 Fish and Game Wardens working in the field, as compared to 181 Cal/OSHA compliance officers making workplace inspections.
  • To have the same inspector to worker ratio that Federal OSHA had in April 2004, Cal/OSHA should have 303 inspectors. Cal/OSHA had 181 inspectors actually at work in the field in January 2005 covering 17.7 million workers and 1.15 million work sites.