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Alexandra Berzon

OSHA up for rare inquiry

2 April 2008

NEVADA -- Nevada lawmakers said Tuesday they expect the Legislature will hold hearings on safety lapses involved in deaths at Strip construction sites and on the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration's conduct after the fatalities.

"This is a tragedy for these families and a huge disappointment for policymakers who have worked so hard to create a very fine system where employees and employers can work together," said Sen. Randolf Townsend, a Reno Republican who is chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee that oversees OSHA.

John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee in the Assembly, said he expects legislation addressing Nevada OSHA to come before the committee during the 2009 session.

If it does, it will be the first time in at least several sessions. Lorne Malkiewich, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, said no significant reforms of OSHA were proposed during the 2005 and 2007 legislative sessions.

Nine construction workers have died in eight accidents at CityCenter, Cosmopolitan, Fontainebleau, Trump and Palazzo over the past 16 months. The Sun reported this week that Nevada OSHA investigators have found a pattern of safety violations on construction sites but routinely withdrew or watered down their citations after meeting privately with contractors.

Lawmakers said Tuesday they were aware of some of the accidents but were surprised and dismayed by the total number and by OSHA's timid response.

Federal OSHA officials said the withdrawal of citations in a fatality case should be done only rarely. Nevada OSHA is required by federal law to uphold safety standards at least as strict as those enforced at the federal level.

Until the early 1990s, safety regulation in the state was conducted as part of a state-controlled workplace insurance program. During a contentious series of battles in the Legislature, the insurance program was privatized, and OSHA came to stand alone as a training and safety enforcement agency.

Democrats argued at the time that the private insurance system would lead to less safety oversight. Republicans, including Townsend, argued that it would provide more incentive for safe workplaces to reduce the cost of insurance, said Townsend and former Sen. Joe Neal, a North Las Vegas Democrat. Both senators were involved in discussions at the time.

"I had said, 'The way you fix the problem with workers compensation in the state of Nevada is just not to let anybody get hurt,' and we vowed to create safer workplaces," Townsend recalled. "It is a real disappointment that we're starting to find cracks in the system with these terrible tragedies. There's something that's wrong."

Townsend said the Legislature may have to allot more money to OSHA to hire more inspectors. Several Democratic lawmakers agreed.

"We need to look at what we can do as policymakers to ask the appropriate questions," said Sen. Steven Horsford, a Las Vegas Democrat. "Are the necessary inspectors in place? Is the proper training being conducted? Are we in compliance? Is this a case where the resources weren't in place so that government oversight wasn't what it needed to be?"

OSHA did not increase the size of its inspection staff in Las Vegas between 2001 and 2007, even though the number of workers in the area increased by 200,000.

The agency added one position this year and is to add two more in 2009 as the OSHA budget increases from $6.9 million to $8.7 million.

However, the agency currently has five inspector vacancies in Las Vegas because it has a hard time holding on to workers, several people familiar with the agency say.

To Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus of Las Vegas and several other Democratic lawmakers called by the Sun on Tuesday, the worker deaths and OSHA's response point to a culture in the state that favors limited government regulation of business — and originates in the governor's office.

Titus said OSHA's conduct is an example of Republican administrations' letting businesses off the hook and favoring greed above all else.

"I do think the laws are on the books already," she said. "I just don't know what the Legislature can do. We can put public pressure on by having hearings, and I would ask for that. Ultimately, you can legislate all you want but if the sanctions aren't imposed it doesn't do any good."

The governor declined to comment Tuesday, via a representative.

Several Democratic legislators said they will ask their staffs look into construction safety and OSHA to determine whether to draft legislation.

AFL-CIO Executive Secretary-Treasurer Danny Thompson said the labor group may propose OSHA reform legislation for the upcoming session.