Five questions about worker safety and Nevada’s OSHA woes
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NEVADA AND LAS VEGAS have had a long and not particularly positive history with worker accidents, including death. Last month a worker on a road project in Northwest Las Vegas was crushed and killed by a pipe segment. In an 18-month period from 2006 to 2009, 12 people died in workplace accidents in Las Vegas, sparking a federal audit of the state-run Occupational Safety and Health Administration (22 states, including Nevada, run their own equivalent of the federal OSHA program). Federal audits continue to find fault with the Nevada program, specifically citing staffing levels, the number of audits completed and the less-than-average level of compensation for inspectors.
DOES NEVADA HAVE A PROBLEM WITH WORKER SAFETY?
Not according to a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Business and Industry.* But according to industry observers and the federal government, yes, it does. A fundamental issue is the number of inspections that are completed.
According to the most recent audit, released in 2012 on the 2011 Nevada program, from federal OSHA monitors, “NvOSHA did not meet their inspection goals for FY (fiscal year) 2011. A total of 1,254 Safety and Health inspections were conducted during FY 2011, and the goal was missed by 878 inspections. In FY 2010 NvOSHA also failed to meet their target number and in response reduced the inspection goal for FY 2011.”
Despite the clear language from U.S. OSHA and the U.S. Department of Labor included in the annual audit, the Department of Business and Industry* says, “There is no set federal goal.”
The number of inspections is actually declining. According to Nevada OSHA, via Business and Industry, Nevada inspectors conducted 1,203 inspections in 2012, down another 51 from the year before.
IS IT ALL BAD NEWS?
No. The federal annual audit found that the state, despite challenges, had “an effective program overall.” One area where Nevada is more aggressive than the national average is in the size of fines levied against companies responsible for serious safety violations.
WHAT’S THE BOTTOM-LINE PROBLEM?
Salaries for state inspectors. The cash crunch that has affected nearly all of Nevada’s state-funded programs has forced the Sandoval administration to make decisions about who gets how much taxpayer dough.
According to a Congressional report from earlier this year on state-run OSHA programs: “Officials from Nevada’s state-run program said that some applicants turned down employment interviews with the state after learning the starting salary.”
The workplace fatalities in the closing years of the real-estate boom happened more than four years ago and are waning in our collective memory. So is the public attention to worker-safety issues. Of course, a recovering economy and more construction jobs might mean more tragedies that would put the issue back on the main burner.
IS THE SANDOVAL ADMINISTRATION RESPONDING TO THE CONCERN ABOUT NONCOMPETITIVE SALARIES?
Kind of. The state has hired more inspectors, and says it now has only one vacancy among its 36 positions for “safety specialists” and “industrial hygienists.” That’s a significant improvement over the last audited period, when a third of the positions were vacant. But that’s not all good news. The congressional Government Accountability Project report on state-run programs noted that half of Nevada’s safety inspectors have less than five years experience, and when they get the experience, higher salaries elsewhere entice them to leave.
Last week, the Department of Business and Industry*, in a written response to questions from CityLife, acknowledged “the difficulty in recruiting and retaining experienced and qualified inspectors by including a 10 percent pay increase for safety inspectors in the state’s budget request for fiscal years 2013-2015.” Asking for the pay increase does not mandate the Legislature to provide it, however.
WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE NEVADA WORKERS?
Potentially exposed to safety concerns. According to Tom O’Conner, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a coalition of labor unions, health and technical professionals, “Nevada OSHA’s problems with filling inspector positions and retaining an adequate number of those positions pose a very real risk to the state’s workers. Even when OSHA offices around the country are ‘fully’ staffed at the bare-bones levels required by federal OSHA, they are still vastly undermanned in their efforts to reach the huge number of workplaces they are tasked with overseeing. When a state like Nevada is so understaffed that they can only perform a small number of planned inspections every year, that means that unscrupulous employers know that they are very unlikely to ever see an OSHA inspector.
“As one commentator noted recently, an employer is, on average, as likely to see an OSHA inspector as often as they see Haley’s comet. So, yes, we do believe that Nevada OSHA’s staffing problems pose a real danger of more workplace injuries and deaths in the state.”
Nevada workers also should consider this: The Sandoval administration says it’s your boss you have to worry about, not its OSHA program: “Although the number of inspections conducted by Nevada OSHA is down from prior years, the ultimate responsibility for a safe workplace rests with Nevada employers.”
* For clarity’s sake, in these instances, the phrase “the Sandoval administration” in the original story has been replaced by a reference to the state’s Department of Business and Industry.