Las Vegas Sun

December 21, 2014

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worker safety:

Labor secretary vows more focus on OSHA as stimulus projects begin

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wilfredo lee / associated press file

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has made hiring inspectors a top priority, but though the department said it would hire 250, Solis could not give a precise number Tuesday.

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Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said Tuesday that the top priorities of her department are hiring investigators and enforcing regulations on worker safety and fair pay.

The previous administration had neglected those issues, Solis said in one of her first appearances on Capitol Hill.

Solis said the focus on the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as its Wage and Hour Division is especially important now. Federal recovery funding is launching construction projects that will need oversight to protect workers.

“We’re looking at really beefing up not just OSHA but Wage and Hour — those are really important areas we know have been lacking,” Solis told reporters following a hearing on green jobs at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“It’s going to be more rigid, I would say, and more robust.”

Without mentioning Las Vegas specifically or the many construction deaths on the Strip, Solis noted the safety problems that industry in particular has faced.

“We’ve seen large numbers of fatalities, injuries — that could be prevented — particularly in the construction industry,” she said.

“My priority right now is that we have seen where there is a great deal of concern of lack of enforcement over the last few years at work sites — at worker safety and Wage and Hour,” said Solis, a former California congresswoman.

Last year the Las Vegas Sun detailed how construction workers had died at a rate of one every six weeks on the Strip. The Sun also reported that state OSHA officials reduced fines and withdrew citations after negotiations with employers over findings of responsibility in the deaths.

More recently, a Government Accountability Office report detailed shortcomings at the department’s Wage and Hour Division, which investigates complaints over minimum wage, overtime and other pay issues. Investigators found that complaints were not handled properly, the Associated Press reported.

Solis could not say Tuesday how many inspectors will be hired. But after the GAO report last month, the Labor Department announced it was bringing on an additional 250 inspectors to “refocus the agency,” according to a statement from Solis.

At the time, Solis’ statement said the department was in the process of adding 150 investigators to Wage and Hour Division field offices, and another 100 investigators “to ensure that contractors on stimulus projects are in compliance with the applicable laws.”

The department received $6.5 million for state and federal OSHA enforcement from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The staff additions would increase the workforce by more than one-third and “will reinvigorate the work of this important agency, which has suffered a loss of experienced personnel over the last several years,” she said in the statement.

However, on Tuesday, Solis also expressed concern that after years of budget cuts, the department will face difficulty putting enough workers in place to handle the flood of public works projects coming with stimulus dollars.

“Whether it’s highway, rail systems, water, sewage systems — all of that is going to require additional help,” she said.

“Our budgets have been cut back so dramatically over the last eight years,” she said, adding she may not have enough inspectors in the field.

“We’re going to have to be more targeted in our approach in how we go about doing these inspections. A lot of it will rely on the public and consumers who will notify our regional offices if they see something that’s wrong.”

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