The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration will open a permanent office in Nevada, according to testimony given Thursday morning at a Congressional hearing, which dealt with grave deficiencies in Nevada’s OSHA plan as identified by a recent federal review.
Henderson is the likely location for the office, said Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), who belongs to the House Education and Labor Committee, which held the hearing. She gathered that from an informal conversation she had with one of the witnesses, Jordan Barab.
Federal OSHA is also starting simultaneous reviews of the worker safety plans in the 26 other states and territories that also operate their own plans. Barab, who is Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor, told the committee that the federal agency expects to complete the reviews by April 2010. The agency already has permanent offices in many, but not all, of the states that opt out of the federal safety program.
The review of Nevada OHSA — the first of a state-run plan — revealed an “agency in shambles,” said committee chairman George Miller (D-Calif.). Through aggressive questioning, Rep. David Roe (R-Tenn.) extracted an admission from Nevada official Donald Jayne that despite Nevada’s budget squeeze, the run of construction fatalities in 2007 and 2008 should be attributed to a failure of leadership rather than financial resources.
Miller delivered a tongue-lashing to Jayne, who became head of the state’s Division of Industrual Relations in March 2009. Nevada OSHA is part of Jayne’s division.
“I’m worried you may not have a grasp of the situation,” Miller said after Jayne testified that during the time span studied — January 2008 through June 2009 — Nevada’s OSHA staff had the “perception” they should not pursue determinations of willful violations in instances where employers seemed to deliberately put workers in dangerous situations. Willful violations carry heavier fines than unintentional violations of safety regulations.
Miller said that, according to the federal findings, Nevada OSHA’s practice of issuing light violations, downgrading violations or failing to document violations was a fact, not perception.
In the span under review, 25 workplace deaths ocurred in Nevada. Of 14 construction deaths, five occurred on the Las Vegas Strip. Miller said the pattern conveyed to contractors, project developers, lenders and owners an anti-safety message, that “the only thing that matters is, I get my completion bonus — and this (worker deaths) is just collateral damage.”
The feds found “systemic problems in the mangement” of Nevada OSHA, Barab told the committee. Besides Nevada OSHA’s tendency to reduce sanctions when an employer contested findings, the problems included a brain drain of inspectors from the state to the private sector, low training levels for inspectors, poor record keeping, and inconsistent follow-up to ensure that employers corrected violations.
Barab also acknowledged that federal OSHA should have spotted Nevada’s worker safety problems sooner. With President Barack Obama expected to propose a 10-percent increase to federal OSHA’s budget for the next fiscal year, Barab testified that the agency should be able to handle the greater workload caused by more intensive supervision of the state safety plans.
But Las Vegas mother Debi Koehler-Fergen — whose son died in a work-related accident at the Orleans hotel in 2007 — told the committee she remains worried that powerful employers will continue to “use political connections to influence outcomes” in safety investigations.
“The game is over, and they (Nevada OSHA) need to give the citations and fines that prove it,” Koehler-Fergen said, “so that hard-working people can go home to their families at the end of the day.”
Steve Coffield — who was promoted to chief administrator of OSHA earlier this year — testified that, "the technical staff and myself, at the time, would recommend wilfuls (willful violations). But when they went up the chain, they would get overturned." Coffield works under Jayne, and was already at OSHA during the years with high fatality rates. But Coffield did not identify which higher authorities he thought responsible for softening penalties.
Jayne was not available for comment right after the hearing, because he was in transit back to Nevada.
Contact reporter Joan Whitely at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0268.