Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Wither CalOSHA?

Most people don't realize that almost half of the states in this country run their own OSHA programs and that the effectiveness of these programs is dependent on both federal and state funding. Federal OSHA runs the rest. OSHA law allows federal OSHA to fund up to 50% of the program as long as the state runs a "fully effective" program. To determine whether a state program is fully effective, federal OSHA and the state agree to staffing level "benchmarks."

The California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS), the union representing CalOSHA inspectors, has released a report questioning whether California OSHA (CalOSHA) is actually running a "fully effective" program. The report found CalOSHA's staffing level to be below its staffing commitment to federal OSHA and and far below what is needed to assure safe workplaces for California workers.

"It's a sorry picture," according to CAPS' Matt Austin.

California is one of 22 states to run its own OSHA program, covering both private and public sector employees. In 1980, when the CalOSHA program was first approved, the state agreed to a staffing level of 805 inspectors to cover over 11.6 million workers in half a million workplaces. CalOSHA never came close to that level and in 1994 renegotiated a much lower level with federal OSHA: 118 safety and 80 health inspectors. At that time, CalOSHA estimated that the safety inspectors would be able to inspect around 12,000 workplaces determined to be high priority, in addition to complaint, fatality and catastrophe inspections. Health inspectors would be able to inspect around 3800 workplaces.

In 1994, California was estimated to have just over a million workplaces, which meant that there was 1 inspector for every 82,822 workers and 1 inspector to for every 4,718 worksites.

Fast forward 10 years. California's labor force has grown 15% and the number of workplaces over 30% since 1994. How is CalOSHA doing keeping up?

Not well, according to CAPS.

Instead of growing in proportion with the number of workplaces covered, the official benchmark has remained at 198. The actual number of inspectors in the field, however, is much less: 176.5 (not including 7 who are on long term leave), making today's ratio of inspectors to workers 1 to 100,181 workers and 1 to 6,464 worksites.

Today, California has more fish and game wardens than workplace safety and health inspectors - 227 vs. 193.

If California was still operating under the 1980 federal OSHA benchmark ratios, the agency would have one inspector to every 15,000 workers and 625 workplaces.

CalOSHA also doesn't seem to be doing well compared to other western states. Washington State, for example, has a ratio of one inspector to 21,655 workers and 1,834 worksites, while Oregon has a ratio of one inspector to 22,286 workers and 1,239 worksites. And just for amusement, check out British Columbia which has a ratio of one inspector to 9,549 workers and 845 worksites.

There is currently a hiring freeze in California and the effect of the current round of budget cuts is not yet known.

CalOSHA is also failing to meet the challenge of keeping up with the changing composition of the state's working population. The non-English speaking workforce of California is estimated to be more than 6 million workers, over one-third of the working population. Yet CalOSHA has only 29 inspectors (or 16% of the total) who are fluent in a language other than English. Twenty of these speak Spanish.

According to Austin, there are several obstacles to fully staffing the program: budget problem, low pay for inspectors and lack of political will. CalOSHA has not been on top of the priority list for either the current or under Democrat Gray Davis. In fact, CalOSHA has not had a permanent Chief since July 2002 when former Chief John Howard was appointed by President Bush to head NIOSH.
It is not surprising, then, that Cal/OSHA staff members frequently complain of overwhelming caseloads. In November 2001 the California Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee held a hearing on Cal/OSHA’s response to workplace fatalities. In that hearing, Cal/OSHA was presented with a list of problems, ranging from a lack of bilingual staffing to delayed response times after worker injuries and deaths.18 Cal/OSHA representatives attributed many of the problems to staffing shortages; and they also cited noncompetitive salaries for state-employed engineers, namely, 20 percent lower than the salaries of state-contracted engineers from private consulting firms.
Even the conservative Sacramento Bee came to CalOSHA's defence in December following a fvorable article about CalOSHA in the NY Times:
At a time the state is reeling from a budget crisis of historic proportions, its worker safety law and aggressive enforcement sets California apart and above. That is something to be proud of and to protect. It also is a standard the rest of the nation would do well to emulate.
While most attention is paid to funding and program of federal OSHA, it is important to also focus on the status of workers in the 23 state plan states. Remember, it's not just a Presidential election year. Local elections are where state priorities are made. If you're in one of the other state plan states, check out your state OSHA budget and staffing.