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Study Finds Sharp Rise in Workplace Injuries, Sickness

Times Labor Writer

Private sector workplace injuries and illnesses in California shot up by 18,482 or 11% during the first six months of 1988, compared to the same period a year ago, according to newly compiled state statistics.

The increase was disclosed at a Sacramento hearing designed to enhance the prospects of Proposition 97, the initiative that would compel Gov. George Deukmejian to restore funds for the state’s worker and health safety agency.

Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Hawthorne) said the figures showed that the state’s workers were better off under Cal/OSHA than they are under the federal OSHA program, which assumed responsibility for private sector workplace safety in July, 1987, after Deukmejian vetoed money for the program.

However, Christine Baker, chief of the state Division of Labor Statistics and Research, said that no such conclusion could be drawn from the figures. “It’s not significant,” she said under questioning by Floyd, who presided at the hearing. “There are fluctuations on a year-to-year basis” on these figures, she said.

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Later, Baker said that for each six-month period from 1984 to the present, the injury and illness rates in California had fluctuated between 1.61 per 100 workers and 1.80 workers. She said a rise in employment or changes in the type of work could be a factor in injury and illness figures. For example, private-sector employment was 3.9% higher during the first six months of 1988 than it was in 1987.

After the hearing, it was also disclosed that for the fiscal year that ended June 30, there were 19,130 more injuries and illnesses reported, or an increase of 5.6% over the previous year, during the first full year of federal OSHA operations here.

Federal OSHA assumed responsibility for private sector workplace safety in California on July 1, 1987, after Deukmejian vetoed funds for the Cal/OSHA program. Proponents of Proposition 97 have asserted that the federal program is not as extensive or as vigorous as the old state program, particularly in regard to construction sites.

In an attempt to illustrate this point, there was testimony from the widow and the mother of Lloyd David Wilkins, a construction worker killed in Sacramento on Aug. 3, 1987, when he fell five floors while working on an Internal Revenue Service building. Linda Wilkins, the widow, alternately cried and lambasted federal OSHA’s “inadequate investigation” of the incident, which resulted in a minor citation.

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An accident report by a safety engineer said Wilkins fell through an unsecured roof hole that had been cut for equipment to pass through. Federal OSHA investigated and issued an “other than serious citation” against R.P.M. Erection Co. for having an improperly marked gas container. There was no citation issued in connection with the fall.

“I don’t think it would have happened if Cal/OSHA had been in effect,” the widow said. Alta Jean Wilkins, the victim’s mother, read a letter she had written to the governor. “A life is more precious than gold, or silver, of balancing the budget, or keeping down taxes . . . for God’s sake, and our sakes, give our men the safety inspections they need and deserve.”

Reporters were given copies of a letter to Wilkins’ mother by Margaret Bengs, an assistant to the governor, expressing his “sincere regrets for the death of your son.” The letter stated that the governor had decided to eliminate the state program because he had concluded that federal OSHA “can and will conduct a health and safety program in the private sector in California which provides all of the safeguards and brings to bear all of the expertise that one could reasonably expect from a governmental enforcement agency.”

Frank Strasheim, federal OSHA regional director, who attended the hearing, said his agency’s investigation had concluded that “we could not sustain violations” in the Wilkins case.

Also testifying was Joseph Kinney, of the National Safe Workplace Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, who said California workers would be better off if Cal/OSHA were restored. He said an analysis by his organization indicated that there will be “substantially more job-related fatalities and injuries” unless federal OSHA “drastically” changes its methods.

Floyd also accused Deukmejian of making false statements about workplace safety conditions while attacking proponents of Proposition 97. Later, Kevin Brett, the governor’s press secretary, retorted: “The proponents are trying to paint a picture that federal OSHA can’t live up to Cal/OSHA. The numbers are to the contrary.”

He said, “It’s obvious the proponents are getting nervous” because of this week’s Field Poll. The poll, released Tuesday, showed that 46% of voters surveyed favor Proposition 97, 20% oppose it and 34% are undecided. This is a marked drop in support from a September poll, which showed 58% in favor, 23% opposed and 19% undecided.


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