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Edison said to cover up injuries

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Managers at the state's largest nuclear plant won safety bonuses for years by hiding employees' on-the-job injuries and dodging state reporting rules, employees of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station said in testimony during nine days of regulatory hearings this month.

To avoid reporting employee injuries, safety managers at the plant tried to persuade doctors to close wounds with Steri-Strips in lieu of stitches or to issue over-the-counter medications instead of ordering prescription drugs, the employees said. Other times, they mischaracterized on-site injuries as the result of mishaps at home.

Such injuries at the coastal plant south of San Clemente are still covered up today, the employees alleged, because facility operator Southern California Edison penalizes workers who are involved in incidents that are deemed avoidable.

"If you have an accident and you can somehow hobble your way out of the gate without anybody noticing it, then it's in your best interest to do that," said Carl Wood, a former state regulator who is representing the plant's labor union and the employees who provided testimony to the California Public Utilities Commission. "You're better off hiding it. If you report it, then they chew you out, they chew out your supervisor, and you could have something put in your file."

The employee accounts, provided at hearings and in writing, describe a nuclear power plant where managers routinely downplayed injuries and falsified safety data despite a string of e-mail and hotline complaints from San Onofre employees to Edison management dating back to 1998.

None of the allegations involved radioactive releases or accidents that threatened public safety. They nonetheless reveal a compromised safety culture at San Onofre, said Thomas Barnett, a safety manager at the plant until 2000, when he was reassigned, he said, because he refused to cover up injuries.

Edison, a subsidiary of Rosemead-based Edison International, didn't dispute the testimony from Barnett and two other San Onofre employees. But executives said that since that time they had eliminated bonuses based on injury statistics. What's more, utility Chief Executive Alan J. Fohrer said Tuesday in an interview that he "would never be in favor of disciplining an employee because they were hurt."

Asked about Wood's contention that Edison's disciplinary program encourages employees to hide an injury rather than report it, Fohrer said, "There's something wrong if they feel that way, and we need to address it."

The new allegations about skewed safety reports came to light as part of an investigation by the state PUC into Edison's use of rigged data to win $50 million in ratepayer-funded rewards for its customer service and workplace safety performance from 1997 to 2003.

At issue now is how much the debacle should cost Edison. The company thinks that number should be $52 million, plus interest, which includes returning or forgoing $49.4 million in rewards plus a $2.5-million penalty for failing to keep accurate records of minor first aid treatment.

Other parties in the case, including the commission's consumer protection and safety division, its independent ratepayer advocacy unit and the San Francisco-based Utility Reform Network consumer agroup proposed that Edison pay amounts ranging from $62 million to $207.6 million.

Local 246 of the Utility Workers Union of America, which represents more than 600 San Onofre employees, asked the judge to allocate $2 million a year from Edison shareholder money to fund a five-year collaborative safety program at the nuclear plant.

The biggest potential hit to Edison, suggested by the commission's consumer protection unit, includes what the utility offered plus maximum performance penalties of $56 million and maximum fines of $102.2 million. The commission's ratepayer advocates group wants Edison to return up to $94 million in results-sharing bonuses the utility paid to employees based in part on the manipulated customer satisfaction and safety results.

"Edison was rewarded for having customer service performance that was simply invented," said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network. "The overriding concern is that you have a utility cutting corners and cheating on these things.... Edison has to answer not so much for the individual behavior, but for the culture that spawned this kind of abuse."

In 2004, the utility admitted that employees in its service planning department erased or changed the phone numbers of unhappy customers to prevent customer satisfaction surveyors from reaching them. In addition, planners sought to improve the survey scores by replacing customer phone numbers with their own or those of relatives, friends or cooperative contractors who agreed to provide glowing assessments of Edison's work.

Edison, in a report to the commission, attributed the fraud to "an overstated emphasis on achieving positive survey findings within an organization that was severely stressed due to workload, attrition and limited job experience."

In the months that followed, an internal investigation found that Edison employees with no electrical experience had been given the answers to technical tests to win jobs planning electrical systems for homeowners and developers.

Edison also said it hadn't properly tracked first aid cases companywide, that managers seeking bonuses pressured employees not to report injuries and that there were "limited instances" of supervisors or managers trying to influence medical treatment to avoid California reporting rules. Edison never acknowledged injury misreporting that was as widespread as that alleged by San Onofre workers.

In June, after a preliminary investigation by the commission's consumer protection unit, the regulators launched a formal probe into the scandal. Administrative Law Judge Robert Barnett (no relation to the Edison employee) has presided over the proceeding, which included written testimony, exhibits and reports as well as nine days of courtroom-style hearings with more than 20 witnesses.

At the hearings, Edison argued that the penalties should be limited because the company quickly and voluntarily reported the problems, conducted extensive investigations and offered to return more money than it thought was warranted. In addition, Edison said it fired 11 people and disciplined 46 others as part of what Edison attorney Charles Read called "the most extensive discipline effort in the company's history." Some of those punished were mid-level managers.

Utility commission attorney Nicholas Sher dismissed Edison's claim that it moved swiftly to ferret out the problems, noting that the company didn't act in earnest until after a whistle-blower wrote a second letter about the survey scam -- a letter that was also sent to Edison's regulators and other public officials. In the safety area, Sher said Edison investigated only after discovering the survey scam rather than responding to its own audit reports or years' worth of complaints about underreporting of injuries.

"Only one manager was fired for his role in the health and safety data falsification. And with regards to customer satisfaction, no managers were fired for data falsification," Sher also told the commission judge. "It is too convenient that only low-level employees were terminated.... It strains credulity that no one in management had a hand in this funny business."

The final hearing in the matter is set for Tuesday. After the attorneys file their final briefs, Barnett will issue a ruling on how much Edison must pay. That decision is final after 30 days, unless someone involved in the case appeals the matter to the five-member commission or a commissioner seeks further review.

Regulators plan to conduct a second investigation next year focusing on other facets of customer service as well as the reliability of Southern California Edison's electrical network. That probe will assess the utility's performance and whether ratepayer-funded bonuses in those areas were justified.

elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com

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