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U.S. Labor Department orders Cal/OSHA to fix appeals process

The U.S. Labor Department on Tuesday issued a report that strongly criticized the enforcement of workplace safety in California and ordered the Division of Occupational Safety and Health to fix myriad problems, including a failure to sufficiently train inspectors and to respond promptly to complaints.

The report singled out Cal/OSHA's appeals board for special criticism, finding, among other things, that the board "falls short" of an "appropriate Appeals Process."

The Labor Department initiated its review shortly after a Times investigation last fall found that the appeals board repeatedly reduced or dismissed penalties levied by health and safety inspectors, even after workers died or were seriously injured.

The Times also found that the board's actions were undermining Cal/OSHA's efforts to prevent accidents. In its review, the Labor Department ordered the Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the appeals board to fix the problems.

Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health, said the problems with California's program were "relatively serious, especially with the appeals board."

Workplace-safety advocates hailed the federal government's action, saying it underscored that workplace safety in California has been suffering for years.

"I don't think people realize how broken our system is," said Gail Bateson, the executive director of the nonprofit group Worksafe, which advocates for workers.

But Len Welsh, the chief of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said, "They got a lot of stuff frankly wrong, and embarrassingly so."

As to the criticisms of the appeals board, however, he said, "I am not going to defend them."

Under the law, Cal/OSHA has 30 days to respond and develop corrective plans.

Welsh said that would be a daunting task. The report identified more than 40 deficiencies with Cal/OSHA's programs, including that in 23 of 52 workplace-death investigations, inspectors did not communicate with victims' families.

-- Jessica Garrison

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