Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2019

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Feds slam state OSHA

Review by a team of inspectors finds 18 areas of incompetence over a 17-month period

The Nevada agency charged with enforcing workplace safety laws and investigating on-the-job injuries and deaths operates incompetently in many areas, as shown by a 72-page federal review.

This conclusion is not surprising. An earlier series of investigative stories by the Las Vegas Sun documented the erroneous approach that this agency, the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration, took in response to construction deaths on the Strip.

Nevada OSHA failed to ensure that the construction sites were safe, and failed to conscientiously investigate ensuing deaths. The Sun’s reporting on this issue earned the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

In the wake of the Sun’s reporting, a string of 12 construction-worker deaths on the Strip came to a halt, Congress held hearings on how workplace safety is overseen throughout the country, reforms were debated by the Nevada Legislature — and federal OSHA turned a critical eye toward Nevada OSHA.

That reaction by federal OSHA, which is part of the U.S. Labor Department, resulted in a team of federal investigators coming to Southern Nevada this past summer to review Nevada OSHA activities from Jan. 1, 2008, to June 1 of this year.

As a result of the team’s highly critical report, released Tuesday, a review of all state-run OSHAs will be conducted, the Labor Department announced.

The team reviewed Nevada OSHA’s files on 23 workplace deaths. Also reviewed were five workplace incidents in which penalties of more than $15,000 were assessed against employers. The team originally sought to review cases in which penalties in excess of $45,000 were assessed, but they could not find any — an indication of Nevada OSHA’s lax enforcement.

Sun reporters Lisa Mascaro and Michael Mishak, in a story in Wednesday’s paper, wrote that the review is the most significant of a state program that federal OSHA has undertaken in nearly 20 years.

A total of 18 areas in which Nevada OSHA has fallen down on the job were cited by the team.

Particularly damning was the finding about “willful” safety violations, which are those committed by employers, usually to save time and money, even though they know better.

The team found that only one willful violation was recorded during the period reviewed — and that one was later downgraded during a settlement hearing. The team also found that citations for willful violations, which carry significantly higher penalties, were discouraged because of the “lack of management and legal counsel support.”

If true — Nevada OSHA responded that it does not discourage inspectors from citing willful violations but does insist that such citations can be proven beyond all doubt — this would be a grave disservice to the public. Proper, unbiased oversight by inspectors and state safety managers is necessary if workplace safety is to be taken seriously by employers.

The review also included verification that Nevada OSHA routinely underreported the seriousness of violations it found during inspections, regularly failed to give the families of deceased workers the opportunity to provide potentially useful information during ensuing investigations, did not ensure that cited safety violations were corrected and fell well short of properly training its employees.

Each of the findings of incompetency was accompanied by recommendations on how to act going forward.

Nevada OSHA responded by setting a goal of restoring public confidence through improved performance.

It is hard to imagine, however, the office fulfilling its goal without a strong push by the Legislature. That’s why state Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, says new state laws will be necessary to truly change the oversight of workplace safety.

Carlton, who pushed for worker safety reform in this year’s legislative session, said she will form a legislative work group to draft a worker-safety bill.

With the safety of workers at stake, nothing should be off the table when it comes to the reforms so urgently needed at Nevada OSHA. The agency exists because the federal government encourages states, by paying 50 percent of the cost, to have their own job safety programs.

Nevada is one of many states that submitted plans for a program and had them approved by the Labor Department, on the condition that state officials enforce the plan’s standards.

We are inclined to keep a reformed Nevada OSHA in place. But if the governor, the Legislature and Nevada OSHA itself cannot soon prove they can improve workplace safety, we would support the federal government in taking the unprecedented step of assuming control of the agency.

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