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OSHA safety police do fine work

I’m not sure this is what the federal experts had in mind.

After being blasted in 2009 by its federal counterpart for doing too little to scrutinize workplace safety even after multiple on-the-job fatalities, the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration has gotten tough. Really tough.

On a zookeeper.

On a window washer.

On a manufacturer of ice cream, and a maker of dentures.

Those small Nevada operators have found themselves fighting state OSHA after being whacked with thousands of dollars in fines over alleged safety violations that were either easily correctable or arguably inappropriate. It appears to be part of a policy that is bent at least as much on generating income as promoting safety.

For Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park director Pat Dingle, a visit from the state OSHA inspector resulted in proposed fines of $13,200. Dingle was told he could appeal the fines, but that he still would be stuck paying several thousand dollars to the state for the easily correctable infractions. The financial burden could put the 30-year-old zoo out of business, and Dingle vowed to fight the fines.

In response, state OSHA officials told me they are sensitive to the costs, just not so much so that they plan to change their method of operation. Not yet, anyway.

Media fallout from the zoo citations has roused Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office on the issue and generated a call by state Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, for substantive changes in state OSHA’s philosophy. At last check, the bureaucrats were working on a solution to the zoo’s citation problems.

Trouble is, this isn’t an isolated incident.

In recent weeks I’ve interviewed several longtime small-business owners who have dealt with OSHA over the years. Each stressed a willingness to maintain a safe work environment. But they also say they have noticed a change in OSHA’s mission from workplace safety to fine generation, often for such egregious violations as cracked wall plug covers and improperly displayed safety manuals.

Is it a way to make budget, or perhaps an overreaction to its own underperformance in addressing far larger safety issues involving, for instance, the “clearly supportable repeat violations” related to the worker deaths at local hotel-casinos?

The federal analysis found state OSHA inspectors had an exceedingly light touch when it came to large offenses involving workplace fatalities at big businesses. The safety police couldn’t find it in their hearts to pull the trigger and level hefty fines and penalties even in cases in which fatalities had occurred at Strip casino resorts.

The lack of fines of more than $45,000 was noted by federal OSHA investigators, who had to narrow their field of inquiry to fines of $15,000 because the state had been so conservative in its charges.

Compare that to the $13,200 fine a state OSHA inspector recommended for the nonprofit Las Vegas Zoo for offenses focused on overburdened wall plugs and a supposed lack of protective equipment for animal handlers.

Then there’s Brian Retke, who owns the Window Masters commercial window cleaning service. His citations totaled $2,800 over how his high-rise rigs were securing their lines. He thought his troubles were over when he won his appeal in front of an OSHA review board, but then the safety police appealed to District Court.

Retke still is fighting more than a year later.

“I’m a small-business owner, so I have to do all this myself,” Retke says. “I had to put in a huge expense just to fight at the review board. … I believe that, somewhere along the line, the correct mark was missed by OSHA. Had I capitulated to their demands, they would have put me out of business. What is my recourse? I have to dig deeper into my pockets. I have to wash a lot of windows to pay for this. This is my livelihood. This is how I support my family.”

And there’s 30-year ice cream maker Gene Smyth, who owns Dryers of Las Vegas and employs approximately 60 workers. He was fined around $6,000.

No one fell into a vat of chocolate chip mint: His employees hadn’t been recently trained to operate the company forklift. He was also nicked for failing to fully promote safety in the workplace.

“It’s not just the fine itself,” Smyth says. “If something isn’t right, it needs to be corrected. I think it’s necessary, but I think the approach that they’re using is totally wrong.

“They should be here to help you rather than here to fine you.”

At the Acrylic Works Dental Lab, owner Wayne Murray has been crafting dentures for a couple decades. Murray is proud of his workplace safety record.

No matter. Last April, he was hit with more than $10,000 in fines, mostly for minor infractions that included a $600 ticket for an incomplete OSHA form.

At the lab, small amounts of acrylic plastic are used in the denture-making process.

“They cited us for not having our portable containers labeled,” Murray says.

An appeal reduced the fines to $6,000. After state Sen. Lee started making calls, the fines fell to $3,000. (For his part, Lee says he plans to make OSHA reforms a priority at the Legislature.)

Trouble is, not everyone knows a state senator.

Back in 2009, the federal review called state OSHA’s inspectors an overworked bunch, but officials also noted the inspectors were too easy on egregious repeat offenders. And nowhere in that report did federal authorities say state OSHA needed to start terrorizing mom-and-pop operations.

Nevada’s small-business owners are having enough trouble surviving in this economy.

It’s time for Nevada’s safety police to pick on someone their own size.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.
He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Smith.

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