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November 26, 2014

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CONSTRUCTION SAFETY:

Strip deaths sent message on safety, OSHA chief testifies

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Kevin Clifford / Special to the Las Vegas Sun

State Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, questions Tom Czehowski, Nevada OSHA’s chief administrative officer, about the agency’s standards on Wednesday in Carson City. To Carlton’s dismay, there was no testimony from labor union leaders, workers or family members of workplace accident victims.

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"I think a message has certainly been sent ... to all of us that safety awareness has to come above construction," Czehowski said at the hearing.

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The head of the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration told lawmakers Wednesday that the run of construction fatalities on the Las Vegas Strip “was a tragic situation that I believe caught everyone off guard.”

“It shouldn’t have, but it did,” said Tom Czehowski, chief administrative officer of Nevada OSHA. “As a result, we saw the fatalities we saw. I think a message has certainly been sent to this state, this valley, construction workers, contractors, all of us that safety awareness has to come above production.”

But when officials’ testimony ended and the microphone was offered for public remarks, the hearing before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee fell silent.

Committee Chairwoman Maggie Carlton turned to the video screen opposite the dais, which showed viewers seated in a meeting room in the Grant Sawyer state building in Las Vegas.

“Is there anyone in Southern Nevada that wants to speak, or are you just spectators?” she said.

Hearing nothing, she moved on.

“Is there anyone here who wants to speak?”

Nothing.

“I was under the impression that people wanted to come forward to testify on this,” Carlton said. “I guess they didn’t make it here today. Wow. I’m sorry to hear that. I guess they’re not as interested in this issue as we thought they were.”

With that, Carlton adjourned the meeting and some 25 people shuffled out of the room.

Carlton, a Democrat, said later she had asked labor union leaders to attend and to send workers and family members of workplace accident victims to the hearing.

It was the labor unions in Las Vegas that in June organized a massive walkout at Cosmopolitan and CityCenter to protest unsafe working conditions at those sites after the deaths of eight workers there.

Carlton had organized the hearing to spur ideas for a bill that would help address workplace safety oversight in Nevada.

She also expected contractors and other industry leaders to share their experiences and ideas for bettering workplace safety systems.

“This was all about process,” Carlton said. “This wasn’t about laying blame.”

The testimony marked the first time OSHA officials had publicly answered questions about their conduct in investigations that followed 12 Strip fatalities and a high-profile accident at the Orleans two years ago that killed two workers.

OSHA officials were a no-show at June congressional hearings focusing on workplace safety in Las Vegas, and at two construction worker safety round-table meetings convened by Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani.

At Wednesday’s Senate hearing, Czehowski responded to pointed questions from Carlton by leaning in and carefully switching on his microphone, while remaining expressionless.

“Obviously the fatalities that the state has had are on everybody’s mind as it is on Nevada OSHA’s, and obviously everybody strives to have none,” Czehowski said. “I believe what we saw at CityCenter was a project that was unprecedented.”

Czehowski defended OSHA’s record, which included erasing violations during informal conferences with employers after fatalities — in many cases without explaining the reasons for doing so. Czehowski said in some cases citations were deleted because inspections were problematic, and in other cases because the employer promised to improve safety.

“Nevada OSHA is operating the way they are supposed to operate,” Czehowski said, stressing that Nevada procedures comply with federal regulations. “They are operating according to the guidelines that they have.”

In the past year, as the agency has faced criticism for the practice of making quick deals to get rid of citations, it has increasingly begun to defend the citations before a review board. But a Sun investigation recently found that the agency is losing most of its cases before the board, failing to mount a strong defense of the citations.

At the hearing, Czehowski stressed that the problem is the many OSHA inspectors who leave the agency soon after completing their intensive three-year training program. Eight of the 30 OSHA safety specialists have less than a year of experience and just three have more than five years, he said.

“We train and retrain and end up with a marketable product that goes out to help someone else,” Czehowski said. “Our experience is walking out the door. That makes our job much more difficult, especially when you have a project like the CityCenter project.”

Czehowski and Nevada OSHA attorney John Wiles defended the agency’s conduct during a highly unusual investigation of a double fatality at the Orleans, which involved political appointee Mendy Elliott, who at the time was head of the Business and Industry Department, and other high-ranking officials.

The state attorney general’s office recently found there was no evidence that Elliott had violated state ethics laws by becoming involved in the case (she says her involvement was minimal).

The federal Labor Department, however, found “irregularities” and said although Nevada OSHA did not appear to violate code, the conduct nonetheless raised “significant concerns.”

Before the committee, Wiles reiterated that Elliott’s involvement was justified.

“It’s a little bit unusual and that’s what our fed counterparts had a hard time understanding, but it’s authorized,” Wiles said. “I’m here for the record to state nothing inappropriate went on.”

Throughout the hearing, committee members other than Carlton remained mostly silent.

Carlton said afterward she was disappointed that there wasn’t more enthusiasm for the topic, especially given that passion about workers’ compensation reform is high.

Carlton said she is trying to get labor and industry leaders to work on strengthening OSHA to help prevent accidents in addition to focusing on fixing the systems in place for injured workers.

In contrast, union officials and members are expected to turn out for an Assembly committee meeting Friday on a union and contractor-backed bill that would require construction workers to undergo 10 hours of safety training, said bill sponsor and Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera.

Oceguera said that requirement is an effort to “totally change the culture of safety in the industry.”

Officials at Nevada OSHA have raised questions about their ability to enforce the bill.

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