Workplace Safety Inspections Miss Their Target
By law, all employers have to provide a safe workplace. Even so, someone dies on the job in Washington state about every four days. Somebody reports being injured at work every few hours. Many more injuries go unreported.
A KUOW investigation has found that workplace safety laws are rarely enforced. When state officials do try to enforce the law, they often look for workplace hazards in the wrong places. KUOW's John Ryan brings us part two of our series, "Danger At Work."
Some jobs are a lot more dangerous than others. This crew building a dorm on the University of Washington campus works in one of the most injury–prone fields: construction.
Their jobs involve heights and heavy machinery. And since their workplace is constantly changing with each new beam, each new concrete pour, the hazards are constantly changing too. So when the state agency responsible for workplace safety sends out inspectors, it zooms in on construction.
The building trades are a small part of the state's labor force, but those jobs are so dangerous that half of all state safety inspections target construction sites.
Kime: "It seems like a higher than usual amount of inspections, but we are a higher hazard industry."
Mandi Kime is in charge of safety for the state's largest construction industry group. It's called the Associated General Contractors of Washington.
High above us is one of the biggest hazards on this job. The operator of a tower crane is swinging a gigantic bucket of concrete.
Kime: "I'd say he's probably 80, 100 feet up in the air from where we're at right now."
Ryan: "How much do you think that bucket of concrete might weigh?"
Kime: "Oh! Thousands of pounds. Probably, easily, two or three tons."
Kime says tower cranes are magnets for inspectors from the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. But she says less conspicuous construction sites are often more hazardous to their workers' health.
Kime: "There's lots of employers that have been in business for well over 10 years and have never seen the department. Maybe those people have also had some accidents, and it would be really great if we could get the department to those places."
She says it's disruptive when a state inspector shows up unannounced, but Kime acknowledges that inspections generally help make construction safer, at least if the site hasn't been inspected lately.
Kime: "There's also those people that seem to get an inordinate amount of attention from the department, having several inspections on one job site when there haven't been any serious issues brought up at any of those inspections. Is that worth everybody's time? Are they, as the department, getting the biggest bang for their buck by doing that?"
Ryan: "What's the answer to your questions?"
Kime: "I certainly don't think so, but I'm not in control."
Michael Silverstein is. He's in charge of the division of Labor and Industries that does safety inspections.
Silverstein: "We try to direct our attention to workplaces that are the most dangerous. It wouldn't make sense to do it otherwise."
When KUOW crunched the numbers, we saw a different picture. Workers in many dangerous industries get a small fraction of the attention that construction workers do.
If you work on a farm or a factory in Washington, you're four times less likely to have a state inspector look after your safety. Other hazardous workplaces get even less attention from safety regulators. For many high–risk workers, a visit from a safety inspector is a once–in–a–lifetime kind of event.
Michael Silverstein says his agency is continually adjusting where it sends inspectors. It has beefed up its effort to police the smaller construction outfits that often fly under inspectors radar. It's currently working with business and labor to refocus its inspection program economy wide to get more bang for the buck. Still —
Silverstein: "We need to do some retooling."
Silverstein says his inspectors discover hazards only half as often as they should, given the number of workplace accidents out there.
Silverstein: "This is an indicator that we're not getting people to the right places at the right time, and that's one of the reasons to go back and look at the way we're choosing which workplaces to send people to."
Just to take a step back for a second. Work in this country is a lot safer than it was 40 years ago. That's when the big federal workplace safety law was passed. But business, labor and government all agree that too many people are still being hurt on the job.
One reason? Regulators haven't been able to keep up with the rapidly changing economy.
When Washington state established its safety programs in the early 1970s, there was no software industry, no dot–coms. A lot more of the workforce wore hard hats. Here's Michael Silverstein:
Silverstein: "The inspectors that were hired initially tended to have experience in construction, in logging, in some of the other industries. We certainly didn't have people on board who had real firsthand experience and knowledge in, for example, the health care industries, until recently. Our balance is still not right, but those are not things that you change overnight."
In a sense, the agency's still focused on the economy of decades past. Silverstein says the bigger problem is how little attention is paid to worker safety in any industry.
A couple dozen states, including Washington, run their own workplace safety programs. Everywhere else, federal OSHA is in charge — that's the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Silverstein says Washington state does a much better job than OSHA.
Silverstein: "We can get to every workplace that is covered by our safety and health statute about once every 26 years. That sounds pretty awful when you consider that coal mines are inspected four times a year. The FDA inspects meatpacking plants every day. But compared to federal OSHA, we're in great shape because at the federal level they can get to every workplace about once every 100 years."
Silverstein says government, in general, has made workplace safety a low priority.
Silverstein: "More people have been sent to jail for harassing wild burros on federal land than have ever been sent to jail for willful violations of the law that have resulted in deaths of workers."
Two of Washington's most injury–prone industries get almost no attention from workplace safety inspectors. Nursing homes and hospitals might not seem dangerous from the outside, but their employees get injured almost as often as construction workers.
Ness: "Health care workers don't generally get killed on the job, but we get maimed."
Sharon Ness is a nurse. She also works for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
Ness: "You'll find very few health care workers that have got a decent neck, shoulders and back."
They sometimes get hurt when lifting patients —
Ness: "Because we're dealing with people now 600, 700 pounds. Just lifting an arm or a leg on them can be hazardous."
But more and more, injuries come when their patients attack them. Tomorrow, we'll go inside hospitals that are taking on violence in the ER.
I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.
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