Wednesday, April 30, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Labor experts told a U.S. Senate committee Tuesday that weak government oversight of workplace safety is putting workers at greater risk and contributing to on-the-job fatalities, including in Las Vegas.
Experts testifying before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee generally agreed that government should increase fines and step up criminal prosecutions to deter companies from allowing unsafe conditions.
“We need a law with teeth so that employers will be vigilant about complying with safety laws,” said the committee’s chairman, Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
The comments were directed at laws administered by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, created 37 years ago this week to give government a hand in improving workplace safety. The act, signed into law by President Nixon, succeeded in reducing accidents and fatalities.
In recent years, however, government safety regulators have exercised lax oversight and worker safety has suffered, witnesses said.
Citing stories from the Las Vegas Sun, Peg Seminario, health and safety director of the AFL-CIO, testified about the deaths of 10 construction workers on the Strip over the past 17 months.
“In more than 30 billion dollars worth of currently ongoing building projects along the Strip, construction workers are facing massive speedup pressure to complete projects on time amid unsafe conditions, including inadequate fall protection measures, faulty equipment, and lack of required safety training that led to some of the deaths,” she said.
After the deaths of workers Harold Billingsley and Harvey Englander, two of five men who died at MGM Mirage’s $8 billion CityCenter project, Nevada OSHA investigators found numerous safety violations, Seminario said. But the agency withdrew the citations after meeting privately with the contractors.
“The initial citations and penalties in OSHA enforcement cases, weak to begin with, are reduced even further in the resolution of cases,” Seminario told the committee.
As a result of the Sun’s stories, “federal OSHA and the Nevada Legislature are examining Nevada OSHA enforcement practices, which already are changing,” she said. “The public scrutiny has also led to much greater attention to safety requirements at the Las Vegas construction projects on the Las Vegas Strip.”
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But action is needed on the federal level, senators and witnesses agreed.
“We’ve seen the difference when we have good enforcement and effective law — boom, the numbers just go down like a stone, the violations go down, the loss of lives go down,” Kennedy said. “Then when there’s a relaxation, we find out what happens out there in the workforce.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said OSHA “simply cannot be as strong as it could be — and should be — if employers are able to consider the rules optional and if they believe that fines are nothing more than the cost of doing business.”
Kennedy and Murray introduced a bill last year to raise fines on employers from $7,000 to $10,000 for “serious” safety violations, and from $70,000 to $100,000 for “willful” violations of the law.
The bill would also allow prosecutors to bring felony charges against employers who knowingly put workers at risk. A similar bill is pending in the House.
The bill, which has been introduced in at least each of the past three congressional sessions, would also allow employees and unions to appeal informal settlement conferences in which OSHA commonly reduces fines during meetings with employers.
In conjunction with the hearing, Kennedy’s office issued a report showing that reducing citations during informal conferences has become commonplace nationally. In all fatality investigations in 2007, the initial median penalty of $5,900 was reduced an average of $2,225, the report said.
“In many cases where a worker is killed, the employer never has to pay anything,” Kennedy said. “How can we expect workplaces to become safer if OSHA won’t bother to collect fines from employers who break the law?”
Ranking Republican committee member Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said any OSHA reform should emphasize drug and alcohol testing and preventive measures such as training, consultations and rewards for companies that create safe working conditions.
“Penalties are a part of the equation but, just like the death penalty, cannot deter every crime so, too, is their utility limited,” Enzi said.
Also on Tuesday, MGM Mirage Chief Executive Terry Lanni made his first public remarks about the deaths at CityCenter. In an interview for broadcast at 9 tonight on Las Vegas ONE, Lanni lamented the loss of life, calling it a “dark cloud.” He emphasized the responsibility of workers and employers to follow safety rules.
“We continue to reinforce with our contractors and subcontractors that they have to follow all these policies,” Lanni said. “The problem is, I guess when you have 8,000 people on a work site you don’t necessarily have the ability to control that.”
The comments came three days after electrician Mark Wescoat fell to his death at CityCenter.