State OSHA fines create ‘real emergency’ at Las Vegas zoo

One look at the diminutive Southern Nevada Zoological- Botanical Park, and you’ll know it’s no threat to the San Diego Zoo.

Its official name is almost larger than the place itself.

The Las Vegas zoo manages to squeeze 150 varieties of animals and plants into three acres on Rancho Drive in a neighborhood that has seen better decades. A small staff of employees and volunteers maintains the grounds and 50-year-old buildings on a frayed shoestring of a budget. There’s room to expand, but not the financial support to do so.

Despite its obvious challenges, the zoo attracts about 40,000 visitors a year, most of them local schoolchildren. It also maintains a high school internship program affiliated with the Clark County School District.

These days, the Las Vegas zoo faces more than financial trouble. It’s being pursued by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration for alleged violations. The zoo, run by a nonprofit foundation, has been hit with proposed fines of at least $13,200. That’s a financial burden that could lead to the facility’s closure after 31 years.

What are the shocking OSHA violations?

Please brace yourself: old electrical wall plugs.

No, seriously.

It turns out that half-century-old buildings contain antique wiring and outlets. Who knew?

They need to be updated, grounded and brought to a higher standard. And that sounds reasonable. What is absurd, especially given the nonprofit zoo’s marginal financial statement, is the idea that OSHA should cripple it with fines.

This is the same outfit that hasn’t exactly played the regulatory Dirty Harry with Strip resorts and contractors who have built whole neighborhoods out of spit and cardboard. The history of Nevada OSHA’s shortcomings could fill a graveyard.

The zoo is also being taken to task for not outfitting employees with personal protective equipment when they feed the Barbary apes. The fact the zoo follows accepted standards and practices, maintains a professional relationship with the San Diego Zoo and is inspected and licensed under the federal Animal Welfare Act and other government agencies didn’t impress the OSHA inspector. He knew best and proposed a fine of $4,200.

That’s not a big number. But it’s not a big zoo.

No one has to tell director Pat Dingle his facility has some problems. He has held it together for three decades and knows every inch of the place. After the OSHA inspection, zoo volunteer Virginia Costa stepped forward and offered the services of her husband Daniel Costa’s electrical contracting company. The outlet issues are being fixed, but Dingle said he was informed the fines would stand.

“It creates a real emergency, which we don’t have funds for,” Dingle said. “It’s never been an issue with the city of Las Vegas or the Las Vegas Fire Department. It’s only an issue now with OSHA saying somebody could be shocked some day.”

State OSHA chief administrative officer Steve Coffield said the process is moving forward because an informal conference between Dingle and state District Manager Jimmie Garrett failed to resolve the outstanding issues. Dingle said he refused to pay fines he felt were unjust.

Coffield counters that state OSHA appreciates the financial challenges Nevada businesses face these days.

“We are sensitive to it,” Coffield said. “We are sensitive to the fact that, under the best of times, these penalties can be extremely difficult to deal with, and in the current economy even more so. We are sensitive to it.”

But they’re not so sensitive they’ll forgo the fines against a struggling nonprofit.

“Everything we have goes into the care and feeding of the animals,” Dingle said. “This will wipe out our finances. Do we feed the animals or pay the state of Nevada? We’re going to feed the animals. The state would put us in the proverbial Catch-22. It’s just insanity.”

Targeting a struggling nonprofit is easy pickings for OSHA, but it makes little sense in a state with such a sorry job safety record.

It shouldn’t take an official inspection to figure that out.

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

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