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October 25, 2014

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Titus bill adds oversight to state worksite safety programs

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STEVE MARCUS / LAS VEGAS SUN file

An impromptu memorial for killed construction worker Dustin Tarter appears on a beam at the CityCenter construction site in July 2008.

Dina Titus

Dina Titus

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Rep. Dina Titus introduced a bill Tuesday that would give the federal government more flexibility in its oversight of state workplace safety programs, including the agency charged with ensuring the safety of Nevada workers.

The reform legislation is potentially important because of Nevada’s poor track record in keeping workers safe on the job — and follows House hearings last year on the failings of the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

A Labor Department report last year painted the state’s workplace safety agency as incompetent and ineffective in the wake of a deadly building boom.

The federal probe examined the agency’s oversight of 25 workplace deaths over an 18-month period. It found staff ill-equipped to investigate accidents and administrators unwilling to impose hefty penalties on companies.

At stake is Nevada’s control over the workplace-safety program. The state is one of 22 operating its own program, which is supposed to protect private and public employees. The federal government shoulders the responsibility for the other states.

Federal OSHA has required that Nevada make changes to its program. But under current law, federal officials have only one legal option if the state fails to improve: Terminate the state workplace-safety plan and take over. Titus called such a measure a “drastic step that would ... leave state and local government employees unprotected,” while the Labor Department would be on the hook for federal funding.

Titus’ bill, the Ensuring Worker Safety Act, would create “a formal mechanism” to allow federal OSHA to step in, identify problems with state programs and exercise oversight without stripping states of day-to-day control.

The legislation would establish regular Government Accountability Office audits of state programs and the Labor Department’s oversight.

The actions follow the Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series beginning March 30, 2008, that examined Strip construction deaths and exposed the failures of government, management and labor unions to protect workers.

“The tragic deaths of numerous workers in Southern Nevada highlighted the need to ensure that state OSHA plans are doing their job of protecting workers,” Titus said in statement. “Unfortunately under current law, federal OSHA is left with only two options, both at the extreme ends of the spectrum, when it finds state plans that are ineffective. This legislation provides OSHA with an important middle ground so it is not left with the choice of doing nothing or the drastic step of terminating a state plan.”

Titus presented her legislation during a hearing on a separate bill that would strengthen OSHA penalties on employers that violate safety rules — including stiffer fines for workplace deaths and felony prosecution of top company officers.

The Protecting America’s Workers Act has been introduced during the past several sessions of Congress, but has yet to advance, stalled by opposition from Republicans and other priorities in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate.

The bill would increase the maximum penalty for willful or repeat OSHA violations causing worker deaths, from $70,000 to $250,000.

It would also allow a company’s top brass, rather than just the firm, to be held criminally liable, with up to 10 years in jail for employer actions leading to a worker’s death on the job.

David Michaels, assistant labor secretary for OSHA, testified about the need for stiffer penalties to encourage employers to make safe workplaces. He described a 2001 sulfuric acid tank explosion that resulted in a worker death and a $175,000 fine, while thousands of dead fish and crabs left by the same incident earned a $10 million Clean Water Act violation from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Penalties are critical to the effective enforcement,” said Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California, the subcommittee chairwoman and bill’s author. “Otherwise they become meaningless.”

OSHA’s fines have not changed since 1990, and are not tied to inflation. Michaels said the average penalty for a workplace violation is about $1,000.

Lisa Mascaro reported from Washington.

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