The State Worker

Public employee group says California workplace safety department starved for inspectors

California’s workplace safety department is starved for inspectors even as it sits on tens of millions of dollars in cash, according to a complaint that will be filed Tuesday against the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., says Cal-OSHA’s atrophy under the Brown administration has been so severe that the state no longer meets federal standards for inspections and enforcement, placing employees at risk.

Cal-OSHA handles workplace inspections and related safety tasks on behalf of its federal counterpart, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It receives half of its funding from a federal grant and the other half from employer fees.

A spokeswoman for the public employees group couldn’t be reached Tuesday afternoon, but its complaint letter dated for Tuesday cites a report by Garrett Brown, a 20-year Cal-OSHA employee who retired last December as a special assistant to the administration’s chief. Among the allegations:

Cal-OSHA’s contingent of 170 workplace health and safety inspectors is down about 10 percent from the number of Cal-OSHA inspectors Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown inherited in 2011 from Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The staffing decline has come while the main fund feeding the department -- the Occupational Health and Safety Fund -- has kept a balance of more than $20 million for the last three years.

Staffing shortages have forced Cal-OSHA to cut back on complaint investigations of toxic-chemical exposures and other dangerous workplaces where low-wage employees – often immigrant and non-union workers – are least likely to file complaints. Follow-up inspections have also lagged.

Greg Siggins, spokesman for the state Department of Industrial Relations that oversees Cal-OSHA, issued a statement noting that state departments can’t spend money without an OK from the Legislature and the governor.

The excess funds in this case, are used for “cash flow purposes,” according to the statement. Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2014-15 budget proposal includes an extra $3.3 million for 26 Cal-OSHA positions, plus a fee on some refineries to pay for another 15 positions.

When all employees dedicated to occupational health and safety are counted, according to the statement, Cal-OSHA has 182 inspectors in its enforcement unit and another 132 employees who work on compliance collaboration and enforcement with other government agencies.

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