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August 22, 2014

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Legislators call for tougher worker safety measures

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Sam Morris

Striking construction workers walk the picket line at CityCenter after unions walked off the job due to safety concerns Tuesday, June 3, 2008.

CARSON CITY – A legislative subcommittee is calling for tougher worker safety laws, including giving the state attorney general or district attorneys the authority to prosecute employers in cases of on-the-job deaths.

Those changes to the law, prompted by a Pulitizer-winning Sun investigation, would be in addition to administrative penalties by the state if it found willful violations by businesses that resulted in serious injury or death in the workplace.

Assemblyman Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, said the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration can only consider administrative violations. “When somebody dies on the job, we want as many objective observers looking at it,” he said at a Monday meeting of the legislative subcommittee looking at the state’s occupational safety laws.

The recommendation for possible criminal violations came from Debi Koehler-Fergen, whose son died on the job. Travis W. Koehler and Richard Luzier died when overcome by hydrogen sulfide fumes from a cut pipe in a confined space at The Orleans in 1997.

The recommendations of the subcommittee are also in response to a report by the U.S. Department of Labor that was critical of Nevada worker safety laws and procedures. Several workers died in construction jobs in Las Vegas during an 18-month period of the building boom, many at CityCenter.

The subcommittee voted to raise the insurance assessments, fines and other fees levied by the state on employers. The amount of the increase wasn't specified but will be inserted into a final bill. The added money would be used to hire more inspectors and staff and to raise the salaries of the inspectors so they're comparable with private employers.

Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, said the state has been a “training ground for private industry” and it can’t compete with the salaries paid by private employers.

The subcommittee, headed by Carlton, directed a study be made of state salaries to learn how much they would have to be increased to match those in the private sector.

Carlton said these recommendations still have to be reviewed by the Legislative Commission and then presented to the 2011 Legislature, which convenes in February.

“This is not the last inning of the ball game,” she said.

The subcommittee also adopted a recommendation of Koehler-Fergen to keep families abreast of the progress of investigations into the death of a worker.

Another recommendation allows state inspectors to cite an employer for a safety violation even if the inspector didn't see the worker being exposed to the hazard.

It’s a “hazard whether the person is standing next to it or not,” Carlton said. “The reason is to protect the employee.”

The subcommittee also recommended a law that prevents a business or construction company from renewing the business or contractor’s license if he or she hasn't paid the fine for a safety violation. Information on the fine imposed by OSHA would be forwarded to the state Contractors Board or the Secretary of State’s Office to take action.

Carlton also said a bill would be drafted to require project owners or contractors to submit a comprehensive worker safety plan to the state for approval before construction begins. The current law to require “regular inspections” of the project would be changed to specify the frequency of the inspections by the state.

The subcommittee decided not to accept the suggestion of Koehler-Fergen that the family of the injured or killed worker have the right to contest the findings of the state after its investigation.

Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, said OSHA has the expertise to investigate and impose the penalty for the administrative violations. He said the family could file suit.

John Wiles, attorney for OSHA, said the family might have a “cause of action” against the business but it would have to show there was an intent to injure the worker. And the family would have to prove damages.

“There is not a readily available remedy for the family,” Wiles told the subcommittee.

Carlton said his suggestion could be introduced by an independent legislator, if he or she desired. It would not be part of the five bills allowed the subcommittee.

The Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series, which ran in 2008 and has prompted changes at the state and federal levels, examined Strip construction deaths and exposed the failures of government, management and labor unions to protect workers.

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