Thursday, May 1, 2008 | 2:07 a.m.
Key findings in a congressional report on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are identical to those that have been cited in an ongoing investigation by the Las Vegas Sun.
The 31-page report was authored by the majority staff of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. It was released Tuesday.
Prominently detailed in the report is a pattern among OSHA inspectors nationally that matches what Sun reporter Alexandra Berzon found among Nevada OSHA inspectors here in Las Vegas.
After researching fatal job site accidents, OSHA inspectors cite employers for safety violations and then levy fines initially. But in subsequent meetings with employers, the Senate report says, they consistently either downgrade or drop the violations and reduce or withdraw the fines.
Berzon reported on this same pattern in the first article in her ongoing series of construction-safety stories, which was published March 30. At the core of her articles is the inordinate number of deaths occurring at work sites on the Las Vegas Strip, where $30 billion worth of new construction is taking place.
The furious pace of work on the Strip, the role of company safety inspectors, compliance with safety rules, the condition of equipment, the training of employees and the role of OSHA are among issues being examined in Berzon’s articles.
Release of Tuesday’s report coincided with testimony before the Senate committee. Peg Seminario, health and safety director of the AFL-CIO, called attention to the Las Vegas Sun series. She cited the deaths that Berzon has reported on in detail and referred to highlights in the Sun’s series in saying that Strip construction workers are “facing massive speedup pressure to complete projects on time amid unsafe conditions.”
The committee’s majority staff and its chairman, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., hope the report builds momentum for a bill Kennedy first introduced three years ago the Protecting America’s Workers Act.
This bill, opposed by the Bush administration, would strengthen OSHA in several ways. Penalties assessed against employers found to have willfully ignored OSHA’s safety regulations, or found to have carelessly repeated safety violations, would be significantly increased. Protections for employees who disclose safety violations would be added. Public employees and many private employees not now protected under OSHA would be covered. The right of families of victims to meet with Department of Labor investigators would be specified.
We believe the law should also be very clear that fines and safety violations initially assessed by OSHA inspectors after fatal accidents cannot be modified during private, informal conferences between OSHA administrators and employers. Only formal OSHA review boards, meeting in a public setting, should have that power.
Safeguards for workers, particularly those in dangerous jobs, are not now sufficient, as proved by numerous case histories detailed by Berzon and the committee’s report. Strengthening OSHA through passage of this law would be a sizable step forward.