Kevin Clifford / Special to the Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, March 24, 2009 | 2 a.m.
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The chairwoman of the Nevada Senate Labor Committee is proposing legislation to overhaul the structure of the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Sen. Maggie Carlton’s bill would remove Nevada OSHA from the Business and Industry Department and place it under the purview of an existing OSHA review board, a step intended to insulate the agency from strong business influence.
The bill follows widespread concern that Nevada OSHA has not been effectively enforcing state workplace safety laws.
Family members of workplace accident victims and union officials testified to the committee that large companies have unfair influence on the outcome of cases.
The concern became an issue following a deadly double fatality accident at the Orleans two years ago. After department officials became involved in OSHA’s investigation, the agency’s citations against owner Boyd Gaming were reduced. An OSHA inspector quit because he did not believe it was proper for his superiors to overturn his findings.
The bill seeks to address that incident by eliminating the ability of highly placed Business and Industry Department officials to involve themselves in the agency’s work.
“We were trying to get OSHA out from underneath all this political pressure,” said Carlton, a Las Vegas Democrat. “We know the system now isn’t working.”
Local and national worker safety advocates contacted by the Las Vegas Sun on Monday had not read the bill. They said they supported the idea of insulating the agency from business influence but weren’t sure that switching oversight to the review board would solve the agency’s problems.
They noted that members of the review board are appointed by the governor and could make similarly inappropriate decisions. “There needs to be an impartial group of people who are not going to be swayed,” said Debi Fergen, the mother of one of the workers who died at the Orleans.
Some worker safety advocates said OSHA will not become more effective until it receives more funding from the state.
OSHA officials testified this month that the department suffers from attrition of qualified workers to private industry because it cannot offer high enough pay.
Others say the U.S. Labor Department must provide closer oversight of the state agency.
Carlton’s legislation, Senate Bill 288, would give much more power to the review board, a relatively obscure body that meets just a few times a year to hear appeals by employers who disagree with citations issued by OSHA. Only a very small number of OSHA cases end up before the board because most appeals are settled in an informal process with agency officials.
Businesses that appear before the review board almost always win as OSHA routinely fails to mount strong defenses of its actions.
By law, the board is to consist of two labor appointees, two management appointees and a public representative. They serve four-year terms. The current members are from the sheet metal workers union, the electricians union, Wells Fargo Insurance and MGM Mirage.
Carlton views the bill as only a beginning. She said she isn’t convinced, either, that the review board is the best body to oversee OSHA. But she said she wants to create some mechanism to make OSHA separate from the Business and Industry Department.
“We heard testimony from OSHA Chief Administrative Officer Tom Czehowski, and he doesn’t seem to be taking this seriously,” Carlton said. “We are serious about the changes that need to be made within OSHA and we needed to start someplace. We’ve got our committee, the floor, the assembly committee. We have time to work on it.”
The bill is co-sponsored by Marcus Conklin, chairman of the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee.
The idea of an OSHA governed by committee is not without precedent.
Through the 1970s a commission governed Nevada OSHA, which was then linked with the state’s workers’ compensation insurance program, said Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno.
Arizona OSHA is overseen by a commission appointed by governors. The Arizona commission meets once a week to review every citation over $1,000 proposed by OSHA, said Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) Director Darin Perkins.
“There’s checks and balances,” Perkins said. “It’s not just ADOSH or myself acting unilaterally to issue citations.”
But some experts warn that taking OSHA out from under an existing state agency is not necessarily a cure-all.
Eric Frumin, health and safety director for the union Unite Here, said he recently filed a complaint against Arizona OSHA for a situation similar to the Orleans case. He believes the federal government needs to provide more oversight of state agencies.
“When you see a problem in the state of failing to take action and enforce the law properly, the state legislature has to ask whether the U.S. Department of Labor is exercising its responsibility properly,” Frumin said.
Others questioned whether OSHA needs to be revamped or simply better funded.
“You had this cancerous growth in Las Vegas and the system couldn’t handle it,” said Townsend, who sits on Carlton’s Committee on Commerce and Labor.
“But was it because of the structure of the agency or its manpower? That’s a legitimate question we hope will be asked during hearings.”