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When the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee holds a hearing Thursday to examine the failings of Nevada’s workplace-safety program, representatives will try to answer two overarching questions: Why did the state agency charged with keeping workers safe on the job fail so badly — and are those failures symptomatic of a national problem?
The inquiry stems from a Labor Department report last week that painted the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration as incompetent and ineffective in the wake of a deadly building boom. The probe examined the agency’s oversight of 25 workplace deaths in the state over an 18-month period. It found the state’s staff ill-equipped to investigate accidents and administrators unwilling to impose hefty penalties on companies.
At stake could be Nevada’s control over the workplace-safety program. Nevada is one of 22 states operating such a program, which is supposed to protect private and public employees. The federal government shoulders the responsibility in all other states.
Federal officials have required Nevada OSHA to submit a corrective action plan by Nov. 20 and expect the agency to make the necessary changes over the next year.
Thursday’s hearing promises to drive home the urgency, with testimony from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, among others. Reid “is disappointed that the past leadership of Nevada OSHA failed to take the appropriate steps that could have saved lives,” Reid spokesman Jon Summers said Monday.
The hearing also will pack the emotional punch of Debi Koehler-Fergen, whose son Travis died while trying to save a co-worker in a toxic manhole at the Orleans.
Nevada OSHA officials have acknowledged the failures and pledged to make improvements. On Monday, Don Jayne, the new head of the state Industrial Relations Division, which oversees OSHA, said he welcomes the increased federal oversight, which he said “will go a long way to prevent things like this from happening again.”
He noted that during the George W. Bush administration the agency received mostly positive reviews.
Jayne summed up the message he intends to deliver in his testimony this week: “We’ve got a car here in need of a tuneup, not in need of replacement. Where the problems may appear dramatic looking back, I’m facing forward and focused on getting the resources to fix them ... With proper leadership and proper direction, we can change things.”
Some safety experts and lawmakers, however, wonder if Nevada OSHA is up to the job. They cite the appointment of Stephen Coffield, the agency’s newly installed chief administrator. He was enforcement supervisor and acting agency head during a spate of deaths on Las Vegas Strip construction projects.
In a series that won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize, the Sun reported that during Nevada OSHA’s investigations of the deaths, fines imposed on companies were routinely reduced after negotiations, and the families of workers killed on the job were rarely notified investigations were under way.
Democratic Rep. Dina Titus sits on the House labor committee and, through a spokesman, said the federal report raises concerns about leadership at Nevada OSHA. Titus questioned whether the agency is capable of conducting the internal review requested by the Labor Department.
“The fact that the new chief administrator was there during that time raises the question (of whether) he is the right person to make the necessary changes,” spokesman Andrew Stoddard said.
Jayne defended the appointment of Coffield, a former U.S. Air Force safety engineer and manager and 14-year Nevada OSHA employee. He described Coffield as “an individual who wants to effect change … someone who knows change is necessary.”
State legislators also are pledging greater oversight.
Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera issued a statement last week that called the federal report “a clear, conclusive reaffirmation of our contention during the 2009 legislative session that Nevada OSHA has not done its job to protect Nevada workers.”
On Monday, the Legislative Commission, an interim legislative body made up of leaders of both houses, appointed a subcommittee to review the federal report and ensure that the agency is making immediate regulatory changes to address its deficiencies. The group will also look at potential statutory changes for the next legislative session.
Sen. Maggie Carlton, the new subcommittee’s chairwoman, underscored the urgency.
“The state plan is a privilege,” Carlton said. “If we don’t get our act together, we could go back under the federal OSHA plan — and if we fail to address the problems, we should. If we’re going to take on this responsibility, we need to take it on thoroughly and with conviction.”
A federal takeover would be unprecedented. The federal government came close to taking over North Carolina’s OSHA program in the early 1990s, after 25 people died in a fire at a chicken-processing plant. The 11-year-old Imperial Food Products plant was never inspected for safety. In that case, the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor organization, unsuccessfully petitioned the Labor Department to strip North Carolina of its power to enforce federal health and safety laws.
In Nevada, Danny Thompson, head of the state AFL-CIO, said he is hopeful the federal report and committee hearing will “put some teeth back in Nevada OSHA.” Acknowledging the agency’s failures, he said he has faith in the new leadership to make the necessary changes and petitioned the Legislature to better fund the workplace-safety plan.
The agency has complained of high turnover of inspectors, a problem it largely attributes to low salaries. Thompson agreed, saying that during the boom years Nevada OSHA was little more than “the training ground for the private industry,” as government inspectors left their posts for higher-paying jobs on large casino projects.
“That’s still a problem today and it’s a problem the Legislature needs to address,” Thompson said. “But I’m willing to give the whole new team a chance to prove they want to do something different.”
Steve Ross, head of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, sounded a similar note, pledging to work with Nevada OSHA to improve training and safety initiatives.
“Construction being the No. 2 industry in the state of Nevada, it should have had the full attention of the state to begin with — from Nevada OSHA to the labor commissioner to the contractors board,” Ross said. “I think this is the mega wake-up call, and unfortunately people had to die for that to happen.”