Tuesday, June 7, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval recently vetoed two bills designed to improve workplace safety in Nevada, siding with business interests instead of protecting workers.
Assembly Bill 253 would have allowed the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration to hand out stiffer fines for businesses that willfully violate the rules. Assembly Bill 254 would have allowed Nevada OSHA greater ability to cite businesses that expose employees to hazardous working conditions. In a veto message, Sandoval said the legislation “unnecessarily increases the complexity and cost of operating a business in Nevada.”
Unfortunately, Sandoval was relying on the old canard about safety programs costing businesses too much money. That is a falsehood that is often cited by businesses and politicians who want to block reform measures. The fact is that studies have shown that strong safety programs help companies save money by avoiding the exorbitant cost of workplace injuries and illnesses.
In one of his veto messages, Sandoval also claimed that legislation passed in 2009 “significantly improved job site safety and enforcement of OSHA violations in Nevada,” suggesting that the changes weren’t needed. The legislation in 2009 did help by increasing training requirements, but it didn’t go far enough.
Over the past few years, the Las Vegas Sun’s coverage of occupation safety in Nevada, focusing on a rash of construction deaths on the Strip, showed how companies in Nevada could pay little heed to safety and get away with it.
The law doesn’t provide much incentive for businesses to comply with safety requirements, even when they admit they have failed. Businesses that are found to be in violation of safety regulations often settle their cases by signing agreements, in which they pledge to fix their safety problems. If a company fails to follow through, OSHA’s only recourse is to take it to court, a long and costly process. AB253 would have allowed the agency to issue fines when companies fail to follow through on their promises, prodding them toward fulfilling their agreements.
As it is, what fines the law allows OSHA to impose on businesses that violate safety regulations are hardly a deterrent. They can be reduced or negotiated away, even in cases involving serious violations of workplace safety.
In vetoing the bills, Sandoval said there is “some merit to the argument” that increased fines would reduce willful violations of safety standards but he rejected it. Instead, he said “a more innovative and proactive approach is warranted to improve workplace safety and change behavior before it results in workplace injuries or death.”
The governor did not say what such an approach might look like, but that type of rhetoric is typical among Republicans and business interests that have sought to neuter OSHA. As we have noted before, they have long argued for measures often described as “innovative” or “proactive,” and that is usually code for less regulation and fewer fines. For example, under George W. Bush’s administration, federal OSHA was pushed to ease regulation and create “partnerships” with businesses. As a result, businesses with poor safety records escaped significant scrutiny.
Given the problems the state has seen, such an approach can’t be acceptable in Nevada. No matter how “innovative” a program is, it won’t be effective unless there is a reason for businesses to comply. OSHA has to have the ability to enforce the rules.
It won’t get that ability this year. Neither bill had enough votes in the Legislature to get the two-thirds majority needed to override Sandoval’s veto. The votes were largely along party lines, with Republicans lining up against them. That’s too bad. Safety shouldn’t be a partisan issue: Workplace hazards are dangerous to everyone.