Record-keeping by state safety officials assigned to the Metro Red Line subway project is so poor that federal investigators cannot determine if California has been properly enforcing its own regulations, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Thursday.
However, the federal agency added that it does not appear that this bureaucratic incompetence actually worsened workers' safety on the job or resulted in more injuries.
And OSHA said that the relatively few citations the agency issued during its own inspection indicate that safety "generally was being adequately addressed."
Federal officials added that Red Line contractors appeared to comply with state and federal requirements on reporting injuries--an opinion at odds with a Los Angeles County Transportation Commission consultant, who concluded earlier this year that accident records were sloppy and inaccurate.
OSHA said that the injury rate on the Red Line work was three times the national average in 1990--but added that the rate has since fallen to well below half the national average.
Bob D'Amato, an independent safety consultant and one of the LACTC's sharpest critics, said the report "whitewashed" many vital safety problems. The problems, he said, have improved only because of the attention focused on safety, but will resurface when public attention turns elsewhere.
Federal officials began their extraordinary probe of the Red Line last May at the request of John Howard, chief of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
News of the request spread fast, a fact that federal officials acknowledge gave contractors warning of the probe. Three weeks elapsed before federal inspectors arrived on May 27.
To try to compensate for the warning--which critics claim gave contractors time to "clean up" their work sites--OSHA Regional Administrator Frank Strassheim ordered a surprise second inspection on July 14 and 15.
On this second visit, investigators issued 38 citations. The report said this was 50% more than would be expected, considering the amount of time inspectors spent on the job. Yet the report also said that "comparatively few violations" were issued in light of the "intense scrutiny" involved.
Federal officials were not immediately able to explain this apparent contradiction.
Investigators focused their efforts on 10 allegations made by critics and whistle-blowers on the project. Three charges were at least partially confirmed:
* State-mandated safety reports apparently were not submitted on time as required by state law. Records on this could not be found. But interviews indicated that enforcement started a year late.
* Cal/OSHA personnel did not cite one contractor that they knew had not filed the required safety plan. Federal officials said this appeared to be because of "miscommunication" in Cal/OSHA's Van Nuys office, and was not a "deliberate decision."
* State inspectors improperly criticized on-site safety personnel hired by the contractors. No specifics on this allegation were provided.
OSHA said it did not find enough evidence to support the seven other allegations, but often noted that poor record-keeping made it impossible to confirm or deny anything.
For example, Cal/OSHA was accused of not conducting six comprehensive inspections of the Red Line construction site each year, as state law requires for all tunnel projects.
A review of state records showed evidence of 22 Cal/OSHA visits in a 17-month period. But no one could tell if the visits were consultations sought by contractors or surprise inspections, and whether any inspection was comprehensive or focused on one particular area.
Furthermore, Cal/OSHA citations often lacked vital information. Names of employees exposed to particular hazards could be missing, for example, and inspectors often forgot to write down what the hazard was, how serious it was and whether the employer knew it existed.