Many Cal/OSHA fines being eliminated

October 21, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The state agency responsible for overseeing work place safety has a poor track record when it comes to collecting fines it imposes. An analysis published today by the Los Angeles Times, finds Cal/OSHA's own appeals board frequently overturns or drastically reduces those fines.

While the Los Angeles Times didn't examine all 18,000 cases since 2005, it reviewed 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 didn't have to pay the entire safety violation fine.

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

"Often times, the fine is either eliminated or significantly reduced, as that it's a slap on the little toe, not even a slap on the wrist," said Brown.

Brown gives the example of a client who lost a limb while working in an orchard. Cal/OSHA fined the company $6700, but it was reduced to $600 on appeal.

"I think corners are cut for the sake of getting a job done quicker, for the job getting done maybe with few safety managers or safety measures. So 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 2,500 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 Chairwoman 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 is how do we find the right penalty that will encourage and promote safety and ensure future compliance," said Traeger.

Equipment operator Bruce Lockwood was injured eight years ago while working on a highway project. An excavator ran over his leg, which had to be amputated.

Today, he has a prosthetic limb and is mad that 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 injured worker Bruce Lockwood. "Yes, they do need to be fined. They continuously do things like this."

Companies 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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