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Are work safety rules being bent?

October 21, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Questions are being raised over whether state agencies are being tough enough on companies that violate workplace safety rules.The Los Angeles Times looked at the numbers but others know about the problem. Dozens of Cal-OSHA inspectors sent a letter to their appeals board saying it is undermining their work. They say companies now know how to gain the system just by simply appealing citations.

While the Los Angeles Times did not examine all 18,000 cases since 2005, it did review the ones where the Cal-OSHA Appeals Board stepped in after its judges made a determination.

Of the 55 decisions made under the current chairwoman, about half the employers did not have to pay the entire safety violation fine.

Attorney Melissa Brown works on numerous injury cases and her experience mirrors the Times' findings.

"The fine is either eliminated or significantly reduced, such that it's basically a slap on the little toe," said Brown.

Brown gives the example of a client who lost a limb while working in an orchard. Cal-OSHA fined the company $6,700 but it was reduced to $600 on appeal.

"It sends the wrong message," said Brown.

The Cal-OSHA Appeals Board denies it has a bias towards companies. It had to get rid of a backlog of 2500 cases; many were so old settling was the only option. And sometimes the evidence or witness of a safety violation just wasn't there.

"We're fair and objective. It's what we strive for. But we still have to look at the law," said Appeals Board Chair Candice Traeger.

The Board also emphasizes the size of the fine is not meant to reflect the seriousness of the injury, but rather the safety violation.

"We look at, how do we find the right penalty that will encourage and promote work place safety and ensure future compliance," said Traeger.

Equipment operator Bruce Lockwood had his leg amputated after an accident at work. He's mad his former employer never had to pay a fine for the incident.

"They want to appeal it to get away with it because they want their safety record to stay unblemished," said Lockwood. "Yes, they do need to be fined. They continuously do things like this."

Companies continue to aim to have a clean safety record because it could mean lower insurance rates and a good shot at government contracts.


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