Is California keeping people safe at work? Labor advocates say no

In 2012, the most recent year for which US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures are available, 375 people died on the job in California  – an average occupational fatality rate of more than one person every day. At the same time, research by Worksafe and other California labor advocates shows that while California’s workforce has grown by about 22 percent in the last 20 years, the number of safety inspectors for the 17 million people employed in the state’s 1.34 million workplaces has decreased by about 11 percent. This leaves California – which has the largest workforce of any US state – with the country’s lowest number of inspectors per workers of any of the twenty-one states with state-run occupational safety and health plan that cover private-sector workers. There are now so few California workplace safety inspectors that it would take 173 years for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) to inspect each workplace in the state just once. This is almost four times longer than it would have taken California inspectors to complete this job in 1992 and means that California has about 10 times fewer inspectors for the state’s workforce than the International Labor Organization recommends.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, states are encouraged to develop and run their own job health and safety programs which are monitored by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) that provides up to about 50 percent of an approved state’s plan’s operating costs. California and twenty other states plus Puerto Rico currently have plans that cover private and state and local government employees, while four other states and the Virgin Islands have plans that cover only public employees. Given California’s size and its historic and oft-looked to role as a national leader in environmental and other progressive policies, that Cal/OSHA has fallen so far behind in its oversight of workplace safety has potentially serious national implications, say California occupational health and safety experts.

The lack of workplace safety inspectors means that Cal/OSHA is routinely missing its required deadlines for initiating and completing inspections – including after serious incidents and to follow-up on corrections needed after an employer is cited for violations, says Garrett Brown, a recently retired 20-year veteran of Cal/OSHA. The severe understaffing stems from political decision-making that has left positions vacant and failed to effectively direct funding to worker and workplace-safety programs, says Brown, who worked as a field compliance officer for 17.5 years and Special Assistant to the Chief of the Division for his last 2.5 years at Cal/OSHA.

“We have great laws on the books that get completely ignored,” said Worksafe executive director Gail Bateson. For example, Bateson explained, California’s limits for occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals – many of which are more protective than federal regulations – are not being monitored or enforced. According to Worksafe’s Dying at Work in California report, an estimated 451,500 people were injured or became sick on the job in California in 2012, an increase of more than 10,000 since 2011. In addition, Bateson said, the agency is conducting few inspections that address health hazards, which require more time and are more complex than inspections addressing safety hazards alone. This means less enforcement, not only of California’s chemical exposure regulations, but also of the state’s other health standards, such as those addressing ergonomics and noise. Cal/OSHA’s current understaffing has also resulted in what Bateson called “a huge back-log” in following up on citations during any appeal and defense process.

Both Bateson and Brown point out that the true number of work-related injuries and illnesses is likely greater than that reflected in BLS figures. As the most recent AFL-CIO Death on the Job report notes of the US national occupational injury and illness numbers for 2012, “Nearly 3.8 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, but many injuries are not reported. The true toll is likely two to three times greater, or 7.6 million to 11.4 million injuries a year.” Bateson expressed particular concern about potential underreporting of injuries and illnesses among temporary workers, whose numbers have been growing particularly quickly in blue-collar and low-wage manufacturing and service industries.

An additional concern in California is how the lack of occupational health and safety resources is impacting the state’s Latino workforce. Figures compiled by the AFL-CIO report show Latino workers to be particularly at risk for fatal workplace injuries, with an occupational fatality rate that’s 9% higher than the overall national rate for workplace deaths (3.7 per 100,000 for Latino workers compared to 3.4 per 100,000 workers overall). In 2012, California was the state with the second-highest number (after Texas) of Latino worker fatalities and the highest number of foreign-born worker fatalities. Understaffing and insufficient resources at Cal/OSHA, says Brown, has contributed to a lack of inspectors who speak any language besides English. According to Brown, less than 15% of Cal/OSHA inspectors currently have such language skills.

In February, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a formal complaint with federal OSHA about Cal/OSHA’s lack of staffing, basing its complaint on a report compiled by Brown. The complaint also points out that Cal/OSHA draws no money from the state’s general fund and alleges that available funding is not being adequately allocated to Cal/OSHA programs. PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said that while OSHA has asked PEER for additional information, OSHA has not yet responded to the complaint.

A national trend

This trend of decreasing resources for workplace safety and health inspections is “a national phenomenon,” said Brown. While California currently ranks last in its ratio of inspectors to workplaces and in inspection rate, the federal OSHA now only has enough inspectors to inspect each US workplace once every 139 years, says the AFL-CIO report. Between the state and federal OSHA programs, this means one inspector for every 67,847 workers.

Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association chair and Administrator for Oregon OSHA Michael Wood points out that as state budgets tightened over the past few years, less money “has been spent to support state OSH plans.” State OSH plans get matching funds from federal OSHA, but Wood explains that it’s been well over a decade since there’s been any meaningful increase in support for state occupational safety and health programs. “Is this having a measureable effect on worker protection? I think it is,” said Wood. Just because every state is not experiencing a “crisis doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem,” he said.

“If this can happen in California, a state that has what’s considered the country’s premier state occupational safety and health plan and under a Democratic administration, it could happen anywhere,” said Brown.


Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific AmericanYale e360Environmental Health PerspectivesEnsia, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation. 

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