Sunday, April 02, 2006

CalOSHA -- Going From Bad To Worse

CalOSHA has eliminated its last physician position, effectively abolishing Medical Unit, according to the California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS), which represents CalOSHA employees. CalOSHA Acting Chief Len Welsh told the CalOSHA Reporter (paid subscription) that this is no big deal, just an experiment, and they may fill the position again at some point.

Others disagree.
“This is really serious and will cripple the Division’s ability to enforce the [ergonomics] standard and enforcement in other areas,” [CAPS representative Garrett] Brown counters. “We are no longer dying the death of 1,000 cuts but now have received hatchet blows to the heart of the Division.” He contends that any salary savings “will be dwarfed” by the costs of contracting out medical services. Seemingly, the Medical Unit has been dying that 1,000-cut death for years – at one time, it boasted seven physicians and three registered nurses. The unit assists the Division in enforcing California’s ergonomics standard, the only regulation of its kind in the nation, evaluates employers’ medical surveillance and bloodborne pathogens exposure control programs and chemical exposure effects. Unit personnel also provide expert testimony in Cal/OSH Appeals Board hearings.

CAPS asserts that the ergonomics standard will be “effectively nullified” by the move because Appeals Board administrative law judges generally refuse to accept non-physician evaluations of medical criteria verifying the existence of two repetitive-motion injuries on the same job in a workplace.

The union also points out that the decision “comes at a time when Cal/OSHA is preparing for the Asian flu pandemic and is preparing for new regulations for infectious airborne diseases like tuberculosis.”
In addition, according to Brown, there are several other important programs that depend on the medical unit:
  • 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.
Acting CalOSHA Chief Len Welsh offered a variety of lame explanations for eliminating the office:
  • the ability to terminate contractors, in case they don't like the "quality" of a permanent employee,

  • a budgetary decision "to ensure that we would not need to cut enforcement slots,"

  • the tendency of previous medical officers to look for new hazards instead of just "enforcing the rules you have on the books.”

This last excuse is particularly upsetting considering that almost every major "new" health hazard affecting workers has been discovered by the affected employees themselves, along with their unions and sympathetic physicians. And few physicians would be better placed to discover unregulated hazards than one working inside OSHA. OSHA only regulated around 600 chemicals, based on science from the 1950's and 1960's. Sticking solely to current regulations may satisfy the law, but doesn't satisfy OSHA's ultimate mission of ensuring a safe workplace.

The elimination of CalOSHA's Medical Unit comes just over a month after the agency was criticized by the California state auditor for failing to discover underreporting of work-related injuries and illnesses on the Bay Bridge project. CalOSHA also to adequately follow up on three of six complaints received from bridge workers. At the time, CAPS blamed the agency's critical understaffing for its failure to adequately monitory the safety situation on the bridge project.
“Cal/OSHA’s worker-to-inspector ratio is double that of Federal OSHA’s ratio, worse still than neighboring states like Oregon and Washington, and dramatically worse than Canadian provinces like Ontario and British Columbia,” Austin pointed out. “In fact, there are 66 more Fish and Game Wardens in California than there are Cal/OSHA inspectors.”
Last month, CAPS called for amending the California state budget to authorize the agency to hire an additional 100 workplace inspectors.
The CAPS proposal would increase the number of authorized workplace inspector positions in Cal/OSHA from 200 to 300. Currently, only 170 of those authorized positions are filled. The increased number of inspectors would give Cal/OSHA the same inspector-to-worker ratio that Federal OSHA has nationally.

CAPS has pointed out that chronic understaffing is the underlying reason for Cal/OSHA's poor performance at the Bay Bridge, and that lack of inspectors is seriously compromising the agency's ability to meet its legally mandated responsibilities to protect the health and safety of 17.7 million workers in over 1 million workplaces in California.

Current Cal/OSHA staffing levels mean that each of the 170 inspectors is responsible for over 100,000 workers and 6,800 worksites.
Twenty-one states run their own occupational safety and health programs, under authorization from OSHA. OSHA mandates that these programs are "at least as effective as" the federal program, but does a poor job monitoring their performance. CAPS has been particularly active in publicizing CalOSHA's problems, but I can't help wondering what problems the other state-plan states are facing that we don't know about.