Last week California OSHA inspectors got a spanking by the California Bureau of State Audits.
Inspectors failed to stay on top of safety and health complaints and injury reporting at a massive, ten-year, $1.7-billion bridge construction project, according to the bureau's report. The project known as Skyway â€” a replacement for part of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge â€” stretches most of the way from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island.
The specifics: Cal/OSHA failed to discover and adequately probe allegations of injury and illness underreporting (up to possible 15 cases), according to auditors, and dropped the ball by not following up on three of six employee complaints of possible safety risks, including one case of exposure to hazardous fumes.
CHRONIC NEGLECTThe response from Cal/OSHA?
The department has been undermined by chronic neglect, according to a statement issued by the California Association of Professional Scientists, the union representing Cal/OSHA inspectors. There are not enough field inspectors to meet day-to-day responsibilities. The Cal/OSHA Medical Unit has gone from seven physicians and three registered nurses in 1975 to one part-time physician and one RN today. Cal/OSHA has not had a permanent chief since July 2002.
A full team of inspectors could be kept busy morning, noon and night monitoring the mammoth Skyway project, according to the union. But for the past three years only one inspector has been sent out on a pre-announced visit about once every two weeks. Eight inspectors are assigned the job on a rotating basis â€” none are dedicated full-time to the bridge.
Oversight "falls through the cracks" when only 169 inspectors are in the field covering California's more than one-million workplaces and 17.9 million workers, said union representative Matt Austin in a statement. Cal/OSHA's worker-to-inspector ratio is double that of federal OSHA's, he explained.
Bottom line: The agency is headed for a "crisis" if chronic understaffing and lack of resources is not immediately reversed, Austin warned.
Cal/OSHA is "already on life support," chimed in Worksafe, a Bay Area affiliate of the network of National Councils for Occupational Safety and Health.
THE BIGGER PICTURELet's broaden the focus of this story beyond the Bay Area. How many occupational safety and health departments in industry across the U.S. today are on life support?
How many are headed for crisis?
"Never have so few been responsible for so much," summarized a 30+ year safety veteran in an email to us after last week's ezine article on techno stress.
"In my division I have 2,600 employees, a processing plant, a mill, a truck shop, 49 licensed drivers and approximately 150 work sites to provide a full range of environmental, health, ergonomic, safety and security services."
Another longtime safety pro emailed: "In the middle of October (2005), my company fired my administrative aide. At the end of October, my environmental engineer quit. Two weeks later they fired my boss. In the middle of an AIHA meeting, I fainted and ended up spending two days in the hospital to see if they could find out why. Two weeks before Christmas, my new boss called me in and said that the company was restructuring and my position was being eliminated."
WHAT STATISTICS SAYISHN's most recent White Paper survey of EHS professionals, conducted in the fall of 2005, suggests this stressed-out and restructured-out pro isn't the only one facing a crisis:
- Almost one in every four EHS pros we polled (23 percent of 340 responding professionals) oversees more than ten work sites.
- One-quarter of pros reported that overall resource support eroded in 2005. Sixteen percent reported an increase, with the remainder of departments in maintenance mode â€” no increases, no cuts.
Responses from the largest facilities we surveyed, sites with more than 1,000 employees, show signs of even greater stress and strain:
- Twenty-four percent of pros in these large-scale operations say budgets will be cut in 2006, compared to 18 percent reporting increases and 58 percent reporting budgets unchanged from 2005.
- About one in five pros in major facilities (21 percent) expect staff eliminations this year, almost double the number (11 percent) planning staff increases.
- Overall safety and health resources have declined in the past year for more than one in every three professionals working in a 1000+ employee facility (36 percent).
WHAT IFIf auditors came in and investigated safety and health departments in industry the way they scrutinized the Skyway project â€”
Surveying hundreds of current and former workers about the practices of the safety and health department;
Conducting follow-up telephone interviews;
Checking the safety manager's logs;
Observing how safety practices are monitored every day;
Reviewing attendance at mandatory safety sessions;
Evaluating the safety manager's position in the organization hierarchy;
â€” what might the results show?
We're not talking about an OSHA-type inspection focusing on outcomes â€” physical conditions and injury/illness rates. We're talking about an evaluation of safety department resources, daily activities and processes, and leadership.
How many safety departments would be judged, as Cal/OSHA was in the state report, to fail to exercise their full authority?
To not adequately probe and follow-through on complaints?
And to be found, as in the case of the California Department of Transportation overseeing the bridge work, to have its safety manager buried in the org chart, lacking independence from managers whose safety performance he must evaluate and report on?
And how many safety and health professionals would respond, as Cal/OSHA did, arguing they don't have the time, resources, or the leadership support to meet day-to-day responsibilities, to do the job the way it should be done?
TELL US YOUR STORYEmail us your answers to these questions (firstname.lastname@example.org). How would your department grade out if auditors came in?
NEXT WEEK (Part 2)â€” How other safety-related professions (nursing, police, aviation) fare in getting resources to get the job done safely.