New inspectors will have quotas

As of this week, the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration will require its 41 investigators to find serious, willful, repeat violations on at least half of their inspections. Before Friday's change, state inspectors were citing serious, willful, repeat violations only 22 percent of the time.

The nationwide OSHA average for inspections resulting in that level of violation is reportedly 79 percent.

"The feds told us, 'You guys need to improve your game,' " says Steve Coffield, chief administrative officer of Nevada OSHA. "They're not saying we have to go out and find serious citations at every place we go. ... But they are saying that our performance basically has to work toward being as effective as federal OSHA's."

"Effective" at working with employers to eliminate conditions that truly threaten life and limb -- or "effective" at penalizing businesses, raising money and guaranteeing expanded bureaucratic employment?

The policy stems from a 2009 U.S. Department of Labor investigation into Nevada OSHA following a rash of workplace deaths from 2004 to 2009. High-profile fatalities included six construction workers at CityCenter, two at the Cosmopolitan and two maintenance workers at The Orleans.

In an 80-page report on its findings, the Department of Labor criticized Nevada OSHA for failing to cite serious, willful, repeat violations of safety laws and for failing to determine whether companies ever fixed hazards noted in previous citations. Nevada OSHA is bringing on three staff trainers and will add four inspectors, boosting its ranks by nearly 10 percent, to 45, later this year.

But this is all taking place in the midst of a recession that wiped out nearly 100,000 construction jobs in the state, notes Bob Potter, president and chief executive officer of Affordable Concepts, a Las Vegas construction company.

In mid-2006, Nevada had 148,800 construction workers, with one OSHA inspector for every 3,916 workers. Construction employment in the state has fallen to 54,700, and by fall, OSHA will have one inspector per 1,216 laborers -- with orders to find more violations.

"They're absolutely right -- there were some significant violations on CityCenter," Mr. Potter says. "But they're taking the entire construction industry to task because of the violations of one general contractor."

If state inspectors were less than rigorous in the past, or didn't know what to look for, train them better and weed out conflicts of interest, by all means. Real violations that threaten life and limb are serious stuff.

But someone needs to take a closer look at that national figure -- 79 percent of safety inspections turning up serious violations -- to see if that includes states with lots of aging steel mills, refineries, fishing fleets or hard-rock mining.

The last thing Nevada's remaining -- and struggling -- employers need is a new set of zealous government inspectors showing up, with instructions to find and fine more "violations" -- even if they have to make them up.