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Safety gaps worry feds

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The U.S. Department of Labor is threatening to yank the state’s authority to oversee safety and health in Hawaii’s workplace, in light of "serious performance problems."

Hawaii labor inspections have decreased to 426 in 2009 from about 4,000 in 1984, when the state assumed the authority to oversee workers’ safety, said David Michaels, the federal department’s assistant secretary for occupational safety and health.

In a Sept. 23 letter to Gov. Linda Lingle, Michaels said enforcement staffing has been reduced to 12 from 27 positions in Hawaii, well below a court-mandated compliance agreement of 18.

Michaels said federal officials also had concerns about the degree of training provided to compliance officers, including the lack of trained staff.

Michaels is asking the state to voluntarily suspend its authority so that federal officials can "provide enforcement assistance for a period of time."

He said if the state does not voluntarily suspend its authority, federal labor officials will seek legal action to revoke Hawaii’s authority to oversee workers’ safety.

Michaels said federal officials would be able to assume limited enforcement responsibility in the state while allowing Hawaii to continue operating its worker safety inspection program.

HAWAII’S OSHA STAFFING SHRINKS

Funded job positions with Hawaii’s Occupational Safety and Health Division:

Year Positions
2006 64
2007 64
2008 67
2009 67
2010 55
2011 42

Source: State Senate Committee on Labor

 

OSHA CONCERNS

» Hawaii voluntarily reduced base funding by $148,400, declined to accept an available $67,300 increase in funding and has requested "deobligation" of $600,000 in unspent funds.
» Enforcement program seriously understaffed, unable to meet minimum expectations.
» Only 12 allocated compliance officers, well below the court-mandated staffing benchmark of 18.
» Decrease in inspections from about 4,000 per year in 1984 to 426 in 2009.

Source: Sept. 23 letter from U.S. Department of Labor

"If funding and full staffing are restored to the Hawaii occupational safety and health program, we are hopeful that the program can regain it previous level of effectiveness," Michaels said.

Under the worker safety program, the state splits the cost of enforcement and consultation with the federal government.

Michaels said while some states contribute more than 50 percent to the program, Hawaii has not done so.

He said in the fiscal 2010 budget, the state has reduced costs, not using 50 percent of its $1.6 million federal grant.

"As a result of these funding problems, the state enforcement program is seriously understaffed and unable to meet even the minimum expectations of an effective state plan," Michaels said.

Interim state Labor Director Pearl Iboshi said the number of inspectors has decreased in the past few years, but there has not been any noticeable increase in workplace injuries.

"In terms of accidents, we’ve been pretty good," she said yesterday.

Iboshi said there are fewer inspectors because many have left or retired, and the state has been unable to fill the positions because it does not pay as much as the private sector. The starting salary for a safety inspector is $33,756.

Iboshi said the state Labor Department is planning to add two inspector positions and one other in the foreseeable future.

She said the department is not planning to relinquish any part of its authority to federal officials.

Iboshi said the department believes it can rebuild the inspection staff and handle the problem itself and has been in close communication with the federal regional labor administrator.

"We will work with them to have them approve our plan going forward and make sure that they recognize the steps we’re taking to regain compliance with standards," she said.

House Labor Chairman Karl Rhoads (D, Kakaako-Downtown) said he was worried about public safety, including the department’s lack of annual elevator inspections.

"The longer the gap … the more likely something will go wrong," he said.

Rhoads said he feels the state administration should have funded the positions in occupational safety to take advantage of federal matching funds totaling $600,000.

Rhoads said he feels the department’s refusal to match the grant money was "penny-wise and pound-foolish" and contributed to federal officials taking a hard stance.

"It’s a disturbing letter, no doubt about it," he said.

Hawaii Laborers’ Union government relations director Al Lardizabal said he thinks the state should be working collaboratively with the unions to help in conducting labor inspections.

Lardizabal said federal inspectors are already stretched and cover a large area, and he is afraid federal intervention will cause longer delays in construction projects.

 

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