Feb. 13, 2006 – A recently released audit found that the California agency in charge of enforcing workplace-safety regulations could be culpable in the alleged underreporting of injuries among workers replacing a span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
The report, released last Thursday by the California Bureau of State Audits, found that the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal OSHA) is under-staffed, lacks the proper processes to insure that employer-reported injury numbers are accurate, and failed on numerous occasions to exercise its full authority in defense of people working on the bridge.
According to the audit, Cal OSHAâ€™s lack of oversight opened the door for the contractor to underreport injuries. Allegedly, the contractor, a three-company joint venture known as KFM, has failed to report at least fifteen worker injuries since the project began in 2002. The Bureau of State Audits (BSA) found Cal OSHA culpable in the under-recording because it "does not exercise sufficient control over the injury-reporting process," but acknowledged that lack of resources at Cal OSHA contributed to its failures.
The audit adds credence to claims made by area unions, workers associations and KFM employees over the past several years.
In response to the BSA report, Worksafe â€“ the Bay Area affiliate of the network of National Councils for Occupational Safety and Health â€“ issued a call for more Cal OSHA inspectors. Stating that Cal OSHA is "already on life support," the group warned that the staffing and resource shortage and the informal compliance agreement are jeopardizing the lives of workers in all state industries.
"We must not wait for a disaster of the magnitude suffered by workers recently in West Virginia," Worksafe Executive Director Fran Schreiberg said. "Why wait until workers die and bring a case? We need to prevent those deaths, and we can."
In a statement supporting the BSA findings, the California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS) warned that Cal OSHA is "headed for crisis if the understaffing and lack of resources is not immediately reversed." State and federal government information presented by CAPS, which represents more than 3,000 scientists employed by the state, shows that Cal OSHA has 169 inspectors â€“ one for every 106,178 workersâ€“ and 29 vacant positions.
"The Bay Bridge is an enormous, 10-year project that could keep a full-time team of inspectors busy morning, noon and night," CAPS representative Matt Austin said in a statement released along with the Cal OASHA fact sheet. "Instead, Cal OSHA has only had the resources over the last three years to send out individual inspectors on pre-announced, rotating visits [to the Bay Bridge] about once every other week. This is how important things â€“ like worker complaints â€“ fall through the cracks."
None of the eight inspectors responsible for the Bay Bridge were assigned solely to the project, Austin noted.
Cal OSHAâ€™s resource deficit may be but a part of the problem, according to the report. Contributing to the dangers workers face is a business-friendly approach to safety issues known as compliance assistance that had a direct hand in the alleged injury under-reporting.
The audit discovered an "informal agreement" reached between Cal OSHA and KFM. Under the pact, Cal OSHA agreed not to issue citations for all safety violations in exchange for expanded access to the worksite, as long as KFM corrected the problems quickly.
According to the audit, the agreement likely played a direct role in undermining KFMâ€™s existing safety program.
"KFM has a safety program that includes elements identified by safety experts as necessary to promote a safe worksite," the report found. "But experts note that one element in its safety program â€“ the use of financial or other incentives as rewards for a safe workplace â€“ may lead to the underreporting of injuries."
The report found that the informal understanding permitted KFM to rack up small violations that were not reported and encouraged the company to hide problems, which it appears to have actively done.
An in-depth investigation of KFMâ€™s safety record, published by the Oakland Tribune before the audit, found that the contractor provides bonuses between $100 and $2,500 to work crews for the time worked without reported injuries. According to the Tribune, public records from the company do not mention the incentive, and workers told the paper that the awards were provided in cash.
The Tribune also reported on sworn statements and testimony related to union arbitration and an ongoing Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into structural problems with the bridge span, in which current and former KFM employees charge that supervisors coerced workers into not reporting injuries and fired or threatened to fire others who did report injuries and illnesses.
Since the $1.7 billion projectâ€™s inception in 2002, news outlets have reported a number of worker-injury claims that the contractor did not file with Cal OSHA, the audit found. KFM has consistently reported work-related injury and illness rates well below national and state averages, and its rate of injury is a quarter that of other contractors working on the Bay Bridge.
Noting that its job does not involve enforcement, BSA provided the state legislature a series of recommendations for improving Cal OSHA. One such salve is that Cal OSHA restructure its cooperative relationship with KFM and other companies formally to "ensure that roles and responsibilities are communicated clearly and that critical information is shared with all relevant individuals."