Official Admits That Cal/OSHA Was Superior to Federal Effort
California’s top safety and health official acknowledged Tuesday that the state’s now-defunct worker safety program was superior in several respects to the federal occupational safety and health program now in effect in California.
Bob Stranberg, chief of the Division of Occupational Safety, said in response to questions during a joint Assembly-Senate hearing in Los Angeles that Cal/OSHA had more standards governing toxic chemicals and stronger civil penalty provisions for workplace safety violations. In addition, he said it used criminal sanctions against employers who endangered workers’ lives considerably more frequently than the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Stranberg made the admissions under cross-examination by Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) during a hearing on Proposition 97, the ballot measure that would restore Cal/OSHA, which was abolished by Gov. George Deukmejian last year. Stranberg came to testify against the initiative and earlier had asserted that California’s 9.5 million private sector workers should feel just “as comfortable” with the federal program as they had with the old state program.
Meanwhile, new controversy in the campaign emerged in San Francisco Tuesday, with proponents of Proposition 97 asserting at a press conference that federal OSHA had “failed to investigate complaints” about a “problem-plagued” construction site next door to the agency’s regional headquarters. But Frank Strasheim, regional director of federal OSHA, said the project had been inspected five times and that citations had been issued against contractors.
At the Los Angeles hearing, several witnesses, including representatives from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, United Neighborhoods Organization, the California Labor Federation and industry testified that the state program was superior to the federal program.
“Cal/OSHA is better than federal OSHA because it has better laws and regulations, better enforcement and provided better access to labor and management,” said Tom Rankin, research director of the California Labor Federation.
“The federal law is lacking, weak,” said Byron Ishkanian, formerly the chief mining and tunneling engineer for the state and now the principal safety engineer for the Southern California Rapid Transit District, who emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not for the RTD.
Jan Chatten-Brown, special assistant for occupational safety and health to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, said she favored Proposition 97 because Cal/OSHA had numerous standards that were more protective of workers than federal standards.
“Protections provided to Californians by the state program include over 2,400 safety standards, as opposed to 700 safety standards under federal OSHA; exposure limits for more than 200 hazardous substances not regulated by the federal government, and stricter exposure limits for another 100 such substances,” she said.
The most emotional testimony was offered by Jesse Martinez, an UNO leader, who said that unsafe safety conditions at a Southeast Los Angeles plant had necessitated the evacuation of thousands of residents over the Labor Day weekend. He said that numerous workers complained to UNO officials about unsafe conditions in their plants and believed that they had no place to turn.
“If there are any deaths or injuries to people in our community, we’ll hold the governor totally responsible for this irresponsible act of eliminating Cal/OSHA,” Martinez said.
Stranberg was the sole witness who testified against the need for Proposition 97, which would compel the governor to restore funding for Cal/OSHA. He said that Deukmejian had vetoed an $8-million legislative appropriation for the agency last year because he was “faced with budget limitations” and other considerations, including the fact that there was an available federal program to replace the agency.
The state retained responsibility for protecting the health and safety of state and municipal workers in California.
Stranberg said federal OSHA’s performance in California “has been exemplary.” He said private sector workplace deaths attributable to violations of federal OSHA standards declined in the first six months of 1988, compared to year-earlier figures under Cal/OSHA.
Andy Schaefer, special consultant to the Senate Labor Committee, challenged the assertion, saying the data was not comparable.
Stranberg also acknowledged that the state had begun to draw up contingency plans about what to do if Proposition 97 passes, but he declined to disclose details.
In San Francisco, Ian Patterson, a veteran safety engineer, and other proponents of the initiative held a press conference saying that federal OSHA had failed to inspect an eight-story office construction project immediately next door to the agency’s offices despite complaints Patterson had made. Patterson said that he had observed numerous “illegal and unsafe conditions” at the site and that he had received no response to a complaint he made about the project to a federal OSHA employee on the telephone.
Patterson said at the press conference that when he visited the site Aug. 11, six foremen told him that they had never seen a government official on the property. He said he re-inspected the project Tuesday morning and there were still violations.
OSHA official Strasheim said that the agency had no record of any call from Patterson about the project. Moreover, he said there had been five inspections of contractors and subcontractors on the job and that citations had been issued and fines levied against employers for noise violations and illegal floor openings.
He said that there had been one accident on the job in August in which a worker’s ankle had been broken as a result of another employee falling on him from a scaffold. Strasheim said that after an investigation, the agency decided no regulation had been violated and no further action was taken.
“People in our office are constantly looking at that job,” Strasheim said. “I can tell you that except for relatively minor scaffolding problems on the first floor, we have not had problems that warranted a wall to wall inspection. Our effort there has been adequate.”