Backers Rally in Last-Ditch Effort to Save Cal/OSHA From Budget Ax

Times Labor Writer

Union officials, public health advocates and a key state safety engineer rallied in Los Angeles on Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to persuade Gov. George Deukmejian not to dismantle California's worker safety program, but they acknowledged that their prospects of success are minuscule.

In January, Deukmejian announced plans to dismantle Cal/OSHA on July 1 and turn the program over to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Deukmejian said the move would save the state $8 million and contended that the federal government is equipped to do an equally good job of protecting workers.

He has not wavered from that position since, despite an outcry from liberal legislators, labor leaders, doctors and even corporations and business groups. The governor's critics have complained that the federal program falls considerably short of California's in both standards and enforcement.

Those themes were echoed at Wednesday's sparsely attended rally outside a Cal/OSHA office on Wilshire Boulevard.

'Find It Strange'

"As president of the American Public Health Assn., I find it strange that at a time when the nation generally is putting increased emphasis on prevention and health promotion--seeking to control cigarette smoking, mandating seat belts--the governor should seek to abolish a proven, effective, preventive program covering 11 million Californians in favor of a weak, underfunded, poorly enforced program," said Ruth Roemer, who also is an adjunct professor of health law at UCLA.

Steve Cook, chairman of the union-backed Los Angeles Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, said the demonstration was held on the 16th anniversary of the Sylmar tunnel accident, a methane gas explosion in a Metropolitan Water District construction project that resulted in 17 deaths and led to a strengthening of California's worker safety laws.

Ralph Brissette, a former locomotive engineer who is the sole survivor of the explosion, was among the speakers Wednesday. "I'm here today by the grace of God," he said. "I'm here today to make sure the people of California and the governor do not forget that disaster. . . . If we lose Cal/OSHA, we'll doom ourselves to repeat this tragedy," said Brissette, 49, who now runs a bait and tackle shop in Los Angeles.

No New Explosions

Byron Ishkanian, head of Cal/OSHA's mining and tunneling unit, said that since state tunneling standards went into effect following the Sylmar disaster, there have been 3,000 tunnel excavation jobs in California without a single methane gas explosion. He noted that those standards would be preempted by less-rigorous federal rules.

Cook, a business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers here, said that several industry groups have urged the governor to reconsider his position. In particular, he noted, an insurance industry spokesman had testified before the state Legislature that a 1% increase in workers' compensation claims caused by the elimination of Cal/OSHA would cost California employers $50 million annually.

And he noted that last month A. R. Shankle, president of the Associated General Contractors of California, sent a letter to Deukmejian warning him that higher worker injury rates and higher worker compensation insurance premiums would result from elimination of the agency.

But Donna Lipper, a spokesman for the governor, reiterated Wednesday that Deukmejian "has no plans to change his proposal."

The state Legislature has restored the Cal/OSHA funding that the governor deleted from the state budget in January. However, he plans to use his line item veto to eliminate that expenditure.

Compromise Falls Apart

The prospects of getting the Legislature to override that veto are virtually nil, according to several knowledgeable sources interviewed by The Times in recent days. For several weeks in the spring, there was speculation in Sacramento that a compromise might be forged under which Cal/OSHA would be saved in exchange for putting a ceiling on growing workers' compensation costs. But those talks fell apart last week, sources said.

"If we fail in the Legislature, we'll consider other means," said Jack Henning, executive secretary of the California Labor Federation. He referred to the possibility of an initiative campaign to restore Cal/OSHA.

The federal government has been preparing to take over the state program since February when Deukmejian formally notified U.S. Secretary of Labor William Brock of the intention to abolish Cal/OSHA. Joe Kirkbride, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor, said Wednesday that federal officials will step in next week unless there has been a veto override.

"We're going to open our offices for business July 1," he said. "We have over 100 federal OSHA people in California to man those offices." He added that about 65 state health and safety compliance officers will be switched to the federal payroll, as well, on an interim basis.

Legal Effort Fails

Late in May, a Superior Court judge in Sacramento ruled that Deukmejian acted without authority when he called for a federal takeover of Cal/OSHA without previous approval of the Legislature. But Judge Roger K. Warren's ruling did not address the issue of whether the governor could eliminate the program by a budget veto. And late last week, Warren declined to issue a preliminary injunction barring Deukmejian from laying off Cal/OSHA employees on July 2 (the presumed date the new state budget will go into effect).

As prospects of saving Cal/OSHA dimmed this spring, many employees began to leave the agency. As of Wednesday, 143 had departed, according to Richard Stephens, a spokesman for the state Department of Industrial Relations. Deukmejian said earlier this year that a total of 366 jobs will be eliminated by abolishing the agency.

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