A group of 47 H&S inspectors, supervisors and managers from California OSHA (Cal/OSHA) sent a pointed letter to the three-person OSH Appeals Board demanding they “cease and desist” their destructive practices.  This Appeals Board is equivalent to the OSH and MSH Review Commissions; it exists because California is one of the 23 States that operates its own OSHA program.  

The CalOSHA employees wrote, we:

 “strongly protest Board policies and practices that have significantly undermined our ability to do our job of protecting the lives, health and safety of California’s workers.”

It’s amazing to me (and refreshing) in these dire economic times, with Governor Schwarzenegger slashing the state budget, that these state employees are willing to act collectively and speak up.  Their outrage stems from a practices that started four years ago by the OSHAB to reduce a backlog of 4,000 cases.  

Some cases were taking 2-3 years for a hearing by an administrative law judge.  (We know that under the OSH Act, an employer can’t be compelled to correct hazards until the company’s appeals are exhausted—not a good way to prevent injuries and illnesses.)   The California OSHAB’s brilliant scheme for “resolving” the backlog was…..get this…..over-booking the ALJ’s schedule.   The judge will be given three or four cases to be heard at exactly the same date and the same time.  The result: the Cal/OSHA managers and attorneys have to pick a small subset of cases to go to hearing and “settle” the rest of them.

The Cal/OSHA employees write:

“How can we…prepare exhibits, witnesses and arguments for three separate cases all scheduled for the same time?  How can we convince worker witnesses to travel long distances, and then to come back after they have been sent home because their case wasn’t heard?  The simple answer is that we can’t.”

“The Board has continued to refuse to even indicate which case will be heard first.  The Board has continued to hold hearings at distant locations where worker witnesses have great difficulty in appearing.  The Board has continued to deny, or simply ignore, legitimate requests for continuances.”

“That’s why there have been hundreds more ‘settlements’ over the last four years, many with drastic reductions in final penalties.  These policies are in addition to the recent practice of the Board to dismiss cases, even those with serious injuries, on minor technicalities; and to unilaterally ‘interpret’ legislation and ignore court rulings, so as to restrict the Division’s ability to enforce the law.”

The CalOSHA employees go on:

“As you must know, those of us representing the Division at appeal hearings are frequently ‘out-gunned’ by the employers’ corporate attorneys who have more resources, personnel and time—even before we have been tripled booked with hearings, often in places where worker witnesses find it difficult to appear.  …We know that not all citations are ‘open and shut’ cases and we believe everyone, including employers, should have the right to a speedy appeal and an impartial review of the facts.  All we want is a level playing field.”

Over the last year, I’ve heard a number of very troubling complaints about abuse of power and/or substandard peformance by some of the OSHA State-Plan States: Nevada, North Carolina, and Minnesota come to mind.  I wonder if its time for some oversight of OSHA’s oversight of them?