OSHA puts ‘new sheriff in town’

Business owners need to prepare front-line managers and supervisors for unscheduled visits from OSHA inspectors, especially since the federal agency opened an office in Las Vegas, an attorney who specializes in labor laws said Tuesday.

Talk to managers about encountering the Occupational Safety and Health Administration officer — whether they should "make nice" with the officer or take a tough stance — and always accompany the official around the property, Stephen Yohay of the Ogletree Deakins law firm said at a seminar on OSHA’s new presence in the West.

"Never let him walk the site alone," Yohay told about 30 businesspeople at The Venetian. "If they take a picture, you take a picture of the same thing, from the same angle. You’ll need to have your own evidence."

The first thing OSHA inspectors will ask when they find a violation is what did management know and when did they know it, the attorney said.

OSHA has intensified regulatory enforcement after a string of construction deaths on the Strip and in the general industry around Las Vegas, opening a local office with area director Joy Flack.

"Is there a new sheriff in town? Absolutely," said Ken Atha, administrator for OSHA’s regional office in San Francisco that covers most of the Western states. "Secretary (of Labor Hilda) Solis wants to make a point. She wants people to know we’re an enforcement agency. That’s where that slogan came from."

The federal agency plans to augment the workplace inspection process, strengthen regulatory enforcement and restructure penalties, Atha said. The average fine for a violation now is $1,000 and will increase to $3,000, he said. Willful violations will start at $7,000 instead of $5,000.

OSHA will use a $14 million budget increase to hire another 130 officers, strengthen oversight of 27 state plans and step up site-specific targeting programs for repeat violators, Atha said.

Federal officers in Las Vegas will accompany state inspectors to job sites, he said. That doesn’t mean Nevada OSHA has been demoted to deputy.

"It’s not a ‘gotcha’ thing at all," Atha said. "Sometimes we just need someone to look after us. Throughout the year, we’re going to be actively engaged in that. We want to make sure we understand what they’re doing and let them know what our findings are. Thus far, they’re open to that."

Nevada OSHA investigated 25 workplace deaths from January 2008 through June 2009. During that time, the U.S. Department of Labor received two complaints regarding fatality investigations at The Orleans and Luxor.

A special study by OSHA’s federal oversight committee found upwards of 60 problem areas that will be addressed during the 2011 Nevada Legislature. Problems include willful violations of OSHA standards, fines that were deemed too small, failure to cite repeat violations and lack of proper training for inspectors.

A state legislative subcommittee agreed on new proposals that would increase penalties and make it easier to cite employers for workplace safety violations.

Expected major OSHA proposals include notifying workers’ families of an injury or death within eight hours; allowing family members and representatives to participate in all meetings related to a death or injury; and requiring investigators to interview family members of the deceased.

The nation averages 14 worker deaths a day, Atha said. Regulating workplace safety and health not only saves lives, but also has a huge economic impact in terms of productivity and profitability, he said.

It’s not just citations and penalties that can hurt business, attorney Yohay said. Regulation by shaming is also one of OSHA’s most effective tools, he said.

"It’s sad to say, but you see these press releases saying nasty things about employers. It’s over before you ever get to the point of finding out if there’s merit or not," Yohay said.

Steve Coffield, chief administrative officer for Nevada OSHA, said he looks forward to working with the federal office in Las Vegas. It will benefit both the state and its workers, he said.

Massive construction activity on the Strip and a high turnover rate for inspectors created the "perfect storm" for safety violations, Coffield said.

He had two pages of major projects in the works simultaneously in 2008, including CityCenter on 65 acres with five buildings going up at the same time and a huge amount of equipment in operation. During peak construction, the project employed between 9,000 and 11,000 workers.

"It’s astounding when you think about the effort that went into that project," Coffield said at a legislative subcommittee hearing earlier this year. "We had 40 inspectors in the field, but they were overwhelmed by the sheer size."

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0491.

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