Saturday, May 27, 2006

OSHA Recordkeeping: Who Will Audit the Auditors?

This is Part III of a series on OSHA recordkeeping by guest-bloggers ERM. Part I appeared here, and Part II appeared here.

In Part I, we explained how accurate injury and illness data are just as fundamental to making the rational decisions needed to protect workers as honest accounting is to preventing future Enrons.

In Part II we used the AK Steel case to show how OSHA may have something in common with the companies it regulates: a vested institutional interest in not carefully auditing OSHA 300 logs and allowing injuries and illnesses to stay off the books. Rigorous enforcement of the recordkeeping regulation might lead to an increase in reported injuries and illnesses, leading some to question whether OSHA is succeeding in its mission. Moreover, big fines for mere “bookkeeping mistakes,” could arouse political opposition from those who don’t understand the importance of accurate OSHA logs.

This piece uses another specific example -- the California Bay Bridge project -- to illustrate that when injuries and illnesses are not recorded real workers get hurt and sick, and to stress the need for a separate institution to audit OSHA.

The strange case of Cal-OSHA’s failure to investigate worker complaints that Kiewit/FCI/Manson (KFM) concealed worker injuries and illnesses in its Bay Bridge project offers disturbing evidence of this institutional conflict of interest. In defending its failures, Cal-OSHA implicated federal OSHA, which approved and encouraged the partnership with KFM that now seems to be a big part of the reason why Cal-OSHA was complicit in the company’s efforts to conceal safety and health problems. Worst of all, Cal-OSHA’s effort to explain away its inaction on the Bay Bridge complaints, reveals the state plan’s indifference to accurate injury and illness recordkeeping.


Before laying out the timeline of events, it is important to understand the context of the partnership agreement between Cal-OSHA and KFM, the general contractors who are rebuilding the Oakland Bay Bridge. Federal OSHA has been promoting voluntary partnerships for years, in an effort to induce companies to make safety improvements. OSHA lacks the resources to enforce everywhere, the reasoning goes, so the more it can encourage companies to comply voluntarily, the better for everyone. Being kinder and gentler to business is also in line with the political program of the Republican administration.

Although states with their own OSHA plans, like California, are supposedly independent of federal OSHA, the national office does provide funding to the states and can influence policies. Moreover, Cal-OSHA has been losing inspectors for years, so it had reason to try to husband its scarce inspection resources by entering into partnership agreements, especially when it comes to large projects.

Finally, KFM had compiled an exemplary safety and health record - on paper – with a history of injury and illness rates below the industry average. This track record helped the company win the Bay Bridge contract and the partnership agreement with Cal-OSHA.


Published reports reveal the following:
  1. An April 7, 2005 article in The Oakland Tribune indicated that in October of 2004 a worker complained of excessive manganese and other toxic welding fumes at the Bay Bridge project. According to the same article, Cal-OSHA defended the Bay Bridge project’s great safety record.

  2. The same newspaper reported in an editorial that 20 workers had said KFM uses fear, cash rewards, and punishments to conceal safety and health problems and minimize problems.

  3. Len Walsh, acting chief of Cal-OSHA, in an April 13, 2005 letter to the editor of the Oakland Tribune, defended KFM’s safety record and denied having received worker complaints about safety violations.

  4. One month later, on May 20, dozens of workers sue KFM over exposure to manganese fumes and other toxins. A recent lawsuit in Illinois had established for the first time a link between exposure to welding fumes and Parkinson’s Disease.

  5. Thanks to the publicity generated by the Oakland Tribune about workers complaining of injuries and illnesses, that KFM is hiding them, and that Cal-OSHA is doing nothing about it, in June 2005, California state auditors decided they would investigate worker safety issues on the Bay Bridge project.

  6. In February of 2006 the state auditors issued a damning report of their findings. “California’s worker-safety watchdog failed to properly monitor and act upon injury reports and safety complaints on the $1.7 billion replacement of the Bay Bridge eastern span.”

    • For example, Keith Bates has a stack of records documenting how he was hurt on the site, but it took Cal-OSHA more than a year to acknowledge the injury and inform the job’s contractor the injury should be on its annual injury reports.

    • In its response to the auditor’s report, Cal-OSHA finally “acknowledges that errors were made in responding to two of the complaints” at the project. One raised a safety issue and the other raised an issue of inadequate protection from manganese exposure after it was believed that problems with protection from manganese exposure had been resolved. “These complaints should have been responded to with an enforcement site inspection.

    • By way of explanation, Cal-OSHA stated that the partnership with KFM is a pilot program, begun with the participation and approval of federal OSHA. Despite evidence to the contrary, the agency also states: “It was clear KFM was not hiding hazards and equally clear that they were willing to abate hazards promptly when they were discovered.”
The facts speak for themselves: Cal-OSHA does not care about enforcing its rules requiring accurate OSHA 300 logs. Just as KFM hid injuries and illnesses, Cal-OSHA ignored worker complaints. Cal-OSHA showed it cared more about having a successful partnership than investigating worker complaints and ensuring accurate OSHA logs.

But in case there is any doubt, the agency itself clearly admits this, in the most damning comment of all those made about the state auditor’s report:
Identifying those instances where Form 300 logs have not recorded all recordable injuries may not be viewed as having a direct relationship to prevention of the most significant accidents that occur at high-hazard worksites like large-scale construction projects.
The California Bay Bridge episode is therefore a perfect example of how at least one state plan and federal OSHA have a vested interest in not requiring the accurate recording of injuries and illnesses. It also illustrates the need for a separate institution to audit OSHA. And finally, it illustrates that when injuries and illnesses are not recorded, it’s not a case of a meaningless bookkeeping error. Real workers get hurt and sick.

One piece of good news: having an independent institution audit Cal-OSHA has worked. Cal-OSHA is finally investigating the underreporting of injuries on the Bay Bridge project and a report is due June 2. The word is that this enforcement action could be a big one.

Does anybody think this would have happened without the state auditor’s investigation? Nor would the auditors have gotten involved without the result of the tireless reporting of the Oakland Tribune.

The conclusion is simple, clear, and logical. If we really want to protect workers and if we really want to know what’s going on in the nation’s workplaces, we not only need OSHA to investigate company records, we need auditors to investigate OSHA.

Unless and until that happens, don’t believe it when OSHA brags about what a great job it’s doing cutting injuries and illnesses.

Related Stories

OSHA Recordkeeping Series by ERM

Part I: Learning From Enron: Why Accurate OSHA Recordkeeping Matters, May 15, 2006
Part II: At AK Steel, as at Enron, the Numbers Don’t Add Up, May 23, 2006

Confined Space Bay Bridge Stories

Cal-OSHA Blasted By Auditor for Bay Bridge Illnesses and Underreporting. Understaffing Blamed
, February 9, 2006
More KFM Flu: Neglected Workers and a Suffering Safety Agency, April 19, 2005
Behavioral Safety Out of Control and The KFM Flu, April 12, 2005