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2 top former Cal/ OSHA officials accuse agency of failing to protect workers

California Governor Jerry Brown speaks during the Center for American Progress 10th Anniversary Conference in Washington, DC, October 24, 2013
Former Cal/OSHA senior official Garrett Brown claims the agency is on a "starvation diet" partly because of Gov. Jerry Brown's austerity policies.

Two former top officials with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/ OSHA)  are accusing the agency of failing to do its job in keeping the state’s 18 million workers safe.

In a 20-page report, the former special assistant to the head of Cal/OSHA argues that a "starvation diet" is creating severe understaffing and is weakening worker protection. The official, Garrett Brown, resigned in late December after 20 years at the agency, more than 17 of them as a field inspector.

"I felt that the agency was being driven into the ground in terms of staff and resources and there were a number of policy decisions I could not in good conscience implement," Brown told KPCC.

Former Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess, who said that she was forced to resign last September, echoed Brown’s concerns about the agency in an interview with KPCC.

Both former officials contend that the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown has been unwilling to spend money to hire additional inspectors despite a surplus in the state Occupational Safety and Health Fund.

A whistleblower advocacy group Brown is associated with, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, will file a formal complaintbased on Brown's paper with federal OSHA Tuesday. The complaint will seek sanctions against Cal/OSHA for failing to meet worker protection standards.

Brown’s report, which was shared in recent weeks with labor groups and Cal/OSHA officials, blamed the "starvation diet" in part on Gov. Jerry Brown’s austerity policies. It also criticized the regulatory approach taken by Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) Director Christine Baker, who oversees Cal/OSHA,  saying Baker emphasizes "compliance assistance" and "partnerships" with business over issuing citations for violations of health and safety laws.

Garrett Brown said the agency had 170 inspectors in December. According to figures provided by the State Employment Department, that would amount to roughly one inspector for every 100,000 workers in California.

Gov. Brown’s proposed budget would add another 25 inspectors, but Garrett Brown argues that that would still leave Cal/OSHA far short of the number it needs.

He said Washington state and Oregon have much lower ratios of inspectors to workers. Oregon has about 1 inspector for every 21,000 workers, according to statistics provided by that state’s Employment Department and the Oregon OSHA.

Having an undermanned inspection force leads to fewer workplace inspections and slower response to workplace injuries, Brown and Widess said.

Cal/OSHA needs to "thoroughly and quickly" investigate accidents involving workers, Widess said, adding: "We are [conducting] fewer inspections to uncover toxic chemicals and other problems that can result in death."

The governor’s office referred KPCC’s interview requests to DIR and Cal/OSHA. In response, the agencies issued a statement challenging Garrett Brown’s numbers. They asserted that they have 182 inspectors "dedicated to the enforcement unit," and another 132 "inspectors working in areas such as interagency enforcement, and other related enforcement activities."

Brown and Widess say the DIR is unwilling to spend surplus funds sitting in the Occupational Safety and Health Fund – which they say is the main source of Cal/OSHA enforcement funding.

Widess said the OSHA Fund, which comes from employer fees, ended the last fiscal year  n June with $24.8 million. It is projected to have a $26.1 million surplus by this June and a $29.5 million surplus by June 2015, according to Gov. Brown’s proposed budget.

Widess said she repeatedly asked DIR Director Baker and the state Labor Secretary, Marty Morgenstern, to tap those funds to hire more inspectors, but was denied, “for reasons that were never explained to me.” 

 Morgenstern stepped down from his post in November.

"It remains a real mystery as to why we were never able to access that funding," even after the agency took a $3 million hit last year because of federal sequestration, Widess added.

In their joint statement, the DIR and Cal/OSHA said that "any excess funds in the account are used for cash flow purposes (6 months) until the next assessment."

Garrett Brown said he decided that he could do more to influence Cal/OSHA’s direction working outside the agency.

After penning his critical report, Brown said he’s headed to Bangledesh next week to consult with that government’s worker safety programs.