Feds find numerous issues at state workplace-safety agency

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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