By Jack Oudiz

Pump Handle readers may recall the “Exit Interview” I posted here in June 2009 upon my retirement from Cal/OSHA after nearly 25 years of service. In that letter, I testified about the many ways that Cal/OSHA was failing to carry out its mandated mission, in part as a result of abysmal leadership, poorly trained and inspired staff, employer-oriented policies and woefully inadequate staffing resources. In the nine months since my departure, things have only become worse. Much worse. To the point that a local news station in Los Angeles was motivated to devote an entire 30 minute program on the many failings of the agency in protecting California’s workers. Now comes the latest instance of bureaucratic assault on Cal/OSHA staff, one so blatantly idiotic and outrageous that it has provoked the kind of bad press that will undoubtedly lead the initiative to blow up in the agency’s face. In the meantime, Cal/OSHA staff morale continues to plummet to unprecedented lows.

 

On February 24, Cal/OSHA Chief Len Welsh issued a memo to all Cal/OSHA staff directing them to comply fully with an investigation being conducted by the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) (Cal/OSHA’s  parent agency). The details of this investigation were subsequently spelled out in a memo issued by DIR’s legal staff on March 1. In essence, all Cal/OSHA staff are required, under threat of disciplinary action, to complete a questionnaire listing every outside, “teaching, presentations and training” performed while working for Cal-OSHA during their entire agency employment lifetime (which for some staff can be 20 years or more), whether compensated or not, whether related to occupational safety and health or not. Employees are being explicitly advised that the inquiry covers religious, political or union organizing activities and even military reserve training. One Cal/OSHA Regional Manager advised her staff that given the language of DIR’s memo, it would be prudent to even include coaching a child’s soccer team as an activity! 

Furthermore, as part of this disclosure, staff is required to submit “any and all documents as well as electronic information related to your teaching, training or presentation activities… [and] are directed to preserve and not to destroy or alter any documents or other information kept in any form concerning these activities.” This electronic information includes “emails, voicemail messages, cell phone and PDA chips, portable electronic storage devices and all types of information that is commonly created, stored and transferred by computer or electronically” and includes “any electronic information you may have created on home computers and other personal electronic devices.” 

This witch hunt was apparently instigated after the discovery that a former Cal/OSHA employee had conducted compensated offsite training while a full-time employee – a practice that has frequently occurred during my tenure, was well known by and even explicitly condoned by management in many cases. But even if truly violative behavior can be proven, the Department of Industrial Relations, the state’s ultimate arbiter of worker rights and labor relations, by this action, is sending a broader message that it condones employers carrying out this kind of giant fishing expedition and invasion of privacy under the threat of disciplinary action. It is particularly troubling to think that a government agency can demand this information with impunity. As Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), put it in a letter of protest to the DIR Director, “In California, all workers enjoy a constitutional right to privacy which means that a government agency has no business probing your personal life, this thoroughly wrong-headed and illegal probe should end immediately and the minds behind it should have their heads examined.” 

To date, Professional Engineers in California Government (PECG), the union that represents most Cal/OSHA field staff, has reacted swiftly and strongly to protest this open ended and overly broad investigation in letters to both Cal/OSHA and DIR. 

For those of you who have ever engaged in volunteer or other activities outside of work, consider the time it would take you to comply with this questionnaire over a working lifetime of 10 years or more. How long would it take you to retrace dates, locations, organizations, content, materials, etc. and to gather up all the physical evidence. Now, put yourself in a Cal/OSHA inspector’s steel-toed shoes for a minute and realize that that is exactly how much time is not available to you to conduct the workplace inspections and accident investigations which are piled ever deeper on your desk. And how does it feel to receive this accusatory and threatening directive? How is your morale and attitude toward the agency that you have committed your career to holding up? How strong is your sense of support and recognition from management for the incredibly challenging job you are asked to perform every day? How is your motivation to carry out the agency’s mission, to the best of your ability, doing? Given that this is one of the very few direct communications that you have received from the Agency’s Chief in the past 5 years, how inspired do you feel? 

As I mentioned in my earlier post, what has not been successfully undermined through legislative attempts, has been achieved through the every day sabotage of an agency’s ability to carry out its mission. Low Cal/OSHA staff morale, worker furloughs, intimidation and lack of leadership, resource starvation and time consuming witch hunts, these all benefit employers to the detriment of the protection of worker rights.

For more, see this EHS Today article and letters from PEER, PECG, and the ACLU.

Jack Oudiz retired in 2009 from his position as a senior safety engineer with Cal/OSHA.  His Cal/OSHA service included district manager of the Modesto office, regional senior IH, designer and manager of the agency’s Professional Development and Training Unit.  He led a contingent of Cal/OSHA staff-volunteers to assist at the World Trade Center disaster recovery site in October 2001.  Following that, he successully (but not without a struggle) integrated Cal/OSHA into California’s Emergency Response system, leading to the agency’s full integration into the local and State Incident Command System.

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