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Feds find numerous issues at state workplace-safety agency

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Indiana’s workplace safety agency mishandled complaints, put its inspectors under strict time constraints, failed to help whistleblowers and even declined to inspect an Indianapolis Power & Light plant last spring after workers reported a dust explosion, according to findings by federal investigators issued in a report Wednesday.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an investigation last spring after receiving allegations about faulty complaint processing, the handling of whistleblower settlements and performance goals for inspectors. OSHA found all three allegations were valid and made 22 recommendations for improvement.

The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration already made some changes but still has work to do, according to a Feb. 25 letter from Regional Administrator Nick Walters, based in Chicago. Walters asked IOSHA Commissioner Rick Ruble to respond in 30 days.

“The nature and complexity of this [complaint] presented numerous challenges,” Walters said in the letter.

Indiana Department of Labor spokesman Bob Dittmer said Wednesday that in the 10 months since the investigation, IOSHA has completed action on all but two of the 22 recommendations. He also pointed out that all of the report's recommendations applied to administrative procedures, "and they have no effect on the health and safety of Hoosiers."

The report also reflects a two-year period in which Indiana workplace fatalities and accident and injury rates were at historic lows, Dittmer said.

OSHA found the allegations about how Indiana was running the program so troubling that it launched the investigation without asking the state to do its own analysis first, Walters said in the letter. Investigators from Chicago and Cleveland reviewed 60 enforcement and 25 discrimination case files and interviewed staff.

Indiana appeared negligent in its response to a March 2013 dust explosion at IPL. No one was injured, but an IOSHA compliance officer relayed to management that it represented a potential “imminent danger,” according to the report.

An IOSHA director met with representatives from IPL and the electrical workers’ union, but no inspection was conducted and the complaint wasn’t recorded. At the time, IOSHA was in the process of settling with IPL over a 2012 inspection that found eight violations.

“Failure to investigate the report of the explosion gives the appearance that settlement of the case was a priority over employee safety and health,” OSHA said.

IOSHA later agreed to do an inspection, and a case was opened on April 18, according to the report.

Among OSHA’s recommendations were training for IOSHA’s complaint-intake clerk and cutting the processing backlog – which was as long as six weeks – to five days.

OSHA also found serious problems in the Indiana agency’s handling of whistleblower complaints.

Investigators found no records of intake, screening or administratively closed complaints, and complaints weren’t adequately documented. IOSHA’s investigators weren’t familiar with whistleblower statutes and weren’t making appropriate referrals to the federal agency. OSHA conducted training for the Indiana staff last August but made several other recommendations.

One recommendation was to eliminate a 60-day deadline to complete investigations. Lawyers for the companies targeted in the complaints are well aware of the 60-say deadline and “often informed investigators that these restrictions are not their problem and were less than cooperative,” OSHA found.

OSHA also found that Indiana’s inspectors were hamstrung by the state’s job-performance measures.

In April 2013, the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of Labor revised the performance measures, in part because of concerns raised by media that IOSHA wasn’t going  to meet its goal of 2,000 inspections in the 2013 fiscal year, which ended June 30.

The revised standards cut time for completing inspections and turning them in for review to an average of 4.1 days for an experienced general industry compliance officer and an average 2.3 days for an experienced construction compliance officer.

“This change, in addition to the increased inspection goal, has led to compliance officers and supervisors complaining about the inability to adequately address and document serious hazards,” OSHA found. “Any complex or large establishment inspections that normally take several days, if not weeks, to complete would be discouraged in order to meet these goals.”

IOSHA came under scrutiny last year after a Journal Gazette report found the agency inspects fewer than a third of the businesses it did in the 1980s, issues fines for serious violations that average less than half the national rate and issued violations at a lower rate than the national average the past decade.

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  • This Happened To Me
    I was an employee at a chemical manufacturing plant in Calvert City, Kentucky for over sixteen years and served on the emergency squad. I observed preventable chemical releases sometimes several in the same week that had a terrible effect on the environment and safety for me and others. I as a member of the emergency squad I would respond to the chemical releases when the plant alarms sounded. I reported to OSHA and EPA a complaint of employees sleeping on the job which in my opinion was the root cause of most of the releases. I had already reported to my supervisors and managers to no avail. OSHA and I worked together for over six months as the chemical releases continued to occur and OSHA cited and fined the company on multiple serious violations. Within a few days of the company being cited and fined I was fired. OSHA sent to me a thank you letter for my help in correcting the problems but however refused to hear my case. Later my attorney told me that the law required that OSHA couldn’t close a case until a hearing was conducted. However OSHA continued to refuse to hear the case after multiple requests. My attorney told me I could sue OSHA however since OSHA was a government agency if we were to win the law suit they would just claim immunity. We are taught to believe there are laws in place to protect us. In reality those laws do exist however the decision to enforce those laws are purely in the hands of the regulators who are well aware they can choose what they want to enforce or not to enforce. In other words they can choose to deny your rights as they did me. If a citizen takes legal action they can play the immunity card. I also found out that if OSHA doesn’t intervene any legal action you take in court will receive summary judgment. There are very few laws that protect workers in Kentucky and what make it worse are the corrupt regulators that won’t follow the laws set by the people knowing that they have immunity. After experiencing a broken and dysfunctional system I found employment elsewhere.
  • OSHA
    DOL Commissioner has any training, education on OSHA? He is a political croney, he need to go
  • Overreaction
    Anyone notice the "Performance goals for investigators" ie quotas to go out and write citations or "find" violations. That's just what the Indiana business community needs.
  • Leadership At Top Lacking
    Agency priorities and operations generally respond to the "tone" set by senior administration officials--in this case, the Agency head and the Governor's office/staff. The "tone at the top" in Indiana is pro-business and to heck with the workers pay and safety. I am glad the Feds are around to shed some light on the inadequate operations at state agencies. Otherwise, the public would be kept more in the dark than they already are.
  • Lies
    From the story: He (Indiana Department of Labor spokesman Bob Dittmer) also pointed out that all of the report's recommendations applied to administrative procedures, "and they have no effect on the health and safety of Hoosiers." Uhhh-huh. It's amazing what some people are willing to say to keep their job.
  • "The Feds"
    Thank God for the Feds, otherwise Indiana would be a boderline third-world nation.
  • More Fed Orders?
    When are we going to tell the Fed's to buzz off? Who are they to tell states how to operate their agencies. Wake up America, the Feds are trying to control every aspect of our lives. 34 4444599
  • Anyone surprised
    How on earth can anyone be surprised by this. Indiana is on a race, no a sprint, to the bottom and we aren't going to let pesky whistleblowers get in the way. There is extra money to be had by employers, worker safety by damned!
  • I'm shocked!
    Yet another underfunded and poorly run government agency in the state of Indiana. Notice a trend? Maybe Gov. Pence will misplace another $500 million so he has another excuse to cut school funding again!
  • No surprise
    In a state where workers are valued less than equipment this report should not surprise anyone. The budget priorities of the previous and current administrations hamper IOSHA's mission.
  • Nap Town
    They need to go to all the Filthy restaurants in downtown Indianapolis. It is NASTY!
  • Not a credit to Indiana
    A race to the bottom in workplace safety is not a credit to Indiana. Surely we can do better and still attract good business and good jobs to the state.

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