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Ellen Widess

Chief, Division of Occupational Safety and Health

Ellen Widess

Passionate about safety, Widess began the new decade as the new chief of California's safety agency and has set about taking DOSH in a new direction.

Resume: Widess was self-employed as a consultant in the field of occupational safety and health and immigration policy in 2010. She was senior program officer for the Rosenberg Foundation from 2000 to 2010, a consultant for the Centers for Disease Control on updated child labor standards from 1998 to 1999, executive director of Lead Safe California from 1994 to 1998, and director of health policy at the Children’s Advocacy Institute from 1991 to 1994. Widess previously served at Cal/OSHA as chief of the pesticide program from 1978 to 1984.

Schools: Widess received a law degree from U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law and a bachelor’s degree in history from U.C. Berkeley

Boards and Commissions: Widess serves on the advisory board of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, U.C. Berkeley Law School. She is also on the advisory council of Farmworker Justice and is a member of the California Bar Association and the Bar Association of San Francisco.

Awards: She is the recipient of the Irma Florez Gonzales Award in 2009 from Farmworker Justice, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for migrant farmworkers’ occupational safety and health.

 

Q&A

What are the top issues in California occupational safety and health today?

Well, number one is creating a culture of safety in every workplace. Things have to begin with a consciousness, an awareness of hazards in each workplace, ensuring that workers are properly trained with the right equipment and the right procedures. No matter how many inspectors we have, we can never be everywhere. So safety and health begins with creating a culture of safety.

 

How do you achieve that?

Our consultation effort, our partnerships with employer organizations. We’re going gangbusters with heat illness. We’re working on confined space hazards. That is one of our special-emphasis efforts this year. We’re working on the kinds of partnerships with labor, professional associations. In my own work, I’m taking every opportunity in my own public speaking to get this message out. We’re asking that folks partner with us so they can lower their own worker comp costs by preventing injuries and fatalities. We’ve got to inspire the culture of consciousness and the culture of safety in all workplaces and put responsibility in the hands of people who can make a difference.

For us, I think we will focus on a couple of very serious hazards again this year: first, heat illness prevention, which affects so many workers in agriculture, construction, landscaping, utilities and other outdoor work. 

The second focus will be on preventing confined space deaths and injuries.  We had seven deaths in 2011, a very high proportion of deaths compared to the national level, all preventable.  This has really awakened a lot of people and employers to the folly of expecting to rely on the fire department or calling 911 to save workers.

In construction, hazard deaths continue to be high. Falls continue to be a very, very major source of death. Fed OSHA is going to be emphasizing fall protection this year. But we have our very well-known high-hazard industry and jobs around hazards like electrocution, lockout, tagout, falls, trenching. Those are the kinds of things we’re trying to do with our consultation program and enforcement after tragic accidents, injury and death.

Through our occupational health work we hope to be making progress on some of the major hazards, inadequate PELs [permissible exposure limits], exposure to things like lead, which is such a well-known hazard but is inadequately regulated now for general industry and construction. So we hope to make a lot more progress through our HEAC process [Health Expert Advisory Committee] and PELs.

We’ve been dealing with a number of ergonomic issues from legislative enactments of the Safe Patient Handling Act. It is dealing with a discrete population in general acute-care hospitals, so it is not broadly affecting all nurses and health care workers. But a formidable problem of musculoskeletal injuries exists.

The challenge for California is the workforce is incredibly dynamic. We have 18 million workers and 3 million businesses, from very large, to many very small companies. Many are too small to have a health and safety worker on hand but yet expose workers to health and safety hazards.

The growth of the contingent workforce is another. They may be considered temporary workers and are not given the opportunity for training on protective equipment, yet they do dangerous work. That is also true that the contingent workforce, who are used in temp agencies and the hotel industry and warehouses. So that has posed problems about who is really responsible for protecting workers. We are defining responsibility to make sure that they are in fact protected.

We have our very well-established industries like agriculture, construction… Then we have new industries. We have new technological advances in oil and gas. And nanotechnology, things for which there are not yet standards. Those are all challenges of the California economy, the workforce and our effort is to ensure that every workplace is safe and healthy.

 

Injury and illness rates continue to decrease, with some exceptions. What's the next great leap forward in occupational safety and health?

 

Again, responsibility rests with employers, because of the resource limitations of our economy and the economic status of California. We can focus on specific hazards and work with the best and the brightest minds in academia, the federal government and professional associations and industry and labor to really delve into new specific hazards.

Similarly, with the technology, oil and gas, fracking, some of the new things, we have to learn more about them. We, in California, may be way ahead of other states. We’re working closely with NIOSH. I think given the reality of our resources, that is why I focus on the culture of safety. I think we have to have a paradigm shift. It is not just Cal/OSHA coming in after a tragic incident, but the effective steps have to be taken by everyone. Because employers know what the hazards are that they are dealing with. That’s why employers are given responsibility to develop their own IIPP. That is not a Cal/OSHA job.

Again, utilizing resources of our consultation programs, other professional associations, industry must step up. We want to work with industry and labor to learn all we can about the new technology and to look forward, to anticipate the changes. We’ve seen dramatic changes in construction with the economic slowdown.

As it rebounds, what are the pressures on an aging workforce? What are the pressures of bringing in younger, less trained workers who don’t have the history of health and safety training as the older workers leave? I think that is a tremendous challenge for OSHA, for industry and for labor generally. How do we help make that transition and ensure protection? I think health and safety committees historically have provided tremendous resources to identify challenges on the job and address them.

I would like to see more resurgence of those health and safety committees, where there is equal power and responsiveness from corporate heads to take health and safety seriously.

I think of all that focus now on reforming our workers’ comp system. There are many inefficiencies in the system that can be addressed. I think smart people are working on that. But there is too little mention of prevention of injury and illness in those discussions. That’s the driver for a workers’ comp injury -- the cost. We can reform the system to work in a more efficient way so that it works for the workers who need it so that it is not a drag on economic progress. However, we can do so much more to prevent injury and illness in the first place.

 

One group – Hispanics/Latinos -- suffers a disproportionate number of injuries and illnesses. Why? How should California address this problem?

That’s a great question. I know that was true last year and it’s true this year. Many Latino immigrants are employed in low-wage occupations that are particularly high hazard. I’m thinking agriculture, construction. They are often very vulnerable because of their immigration status or their low wage status. So they are afraid to complain about hazards on the job, fearful of being fired or deported.

They are often working for smaller employers who may not have good health and safety programs. They are also frequently non-English-speaking so they face all the language barriers. They are often not informed of their right to a healthy, safe workplace. They are often unaware or untrained on the hazards of their jobs. The combination of all those is a natural firestorm of tragedy.

The roofing deaths, the electrocutions, the lack of machine guarding…Again, our response to that is enforcement as an underground economy through our labor enforcement task force. Through our enforcement, we have to make sure that those employers who think they can skirt by under the radar, without any regard to health and safety, are part of our underground economy enforcement efforts. We’re working with labor standards enforcement and the state contractors’ licensing board. We’re out there. Some of the important targets of our concerns with Latino workers, like the high-hazard industry, like agriculture, construction, the auto body shop industry, restaurants where they are suffering particularly high injury and illness rates and are also cheated of wages. That’s one effort.

Another is our heat illness effort that affects so many Latino workers. We are continuing vigorous outreach and enforcement efforts. We are coming out in force this year with outreach to workers. With the Labor Occupational Health Program at Berkeley and their counterpart at UCLA and UC Davis. Outreach to find the hard-to-reach and non-English-speaking workers, their families and communities in Spanish and Mestico to try to find workers at high risk and make sure they know the risk so they can take steps to protect themselves and know their rights. We’re trying to do that.

Our consultation program is focused on all high-hazard employers, many of whom employ that population. By working with those employers, by helping them clean up and adhere to health and safety standards, we’ll try to protect those workers. As long as they are vulnerable, it is very difficult to protect their rights. That is beyond Cal/OSHA’s responsibility. But I will say we are working very closely with the Bureau of Labor Standards Enforcement to improve retaliation protection.

We’ve encouraged especially vulnerable Latino workers [to be] trained to report problems, if they are harassed, discriminated against, fired. Those are realities. As a result, we’re improving the way we refer cases to the BLSE to take on those cases, giving them a good background of the factual context so they can actually bring cases.

We’re referring problems of wage theft, wage and hour problems that we become aware of to BLSE as well. We have an important role, from the retaliation perspective, and it is a high priority for us at Cal/OSHA and the BLSE that we have to make it possible for workers to feel that it is safe to call OSHA. We’re working with our field staff also, to make sure they are provided every opportunity to work with them to make it possible.

It is a combination of economic times, the immigration issues make it very, very important. We know that there are employers who care and who want to do right and are trying. Obviously, in our recognition program we point to those. But there are other employers who appreciate having skilled, loyal workers and are arguing they can protect them.

 

The Injury and Illness Prevention Program is the basic safety requirement for California employers. Now Fed-OSHA is working toward adopting its version of this requirement. Does the California IIPP standard need revision or is it fine the way it is? And if it needs revision, how so?

I think the standard is strong as it is. Unfortunately, a number of employers do lip service with it. There may be some IIPP developed and put on the shelf. I don’t think the standard needs as much tweaking. I am not as concerned with changing the standards as much, though we’ll take a good hard look at it, but we want to see more employers involving their workers in the creation of it. Then making sure that all hazards are identified and that there are appropriate methods of prevention of those hazards, that there are ways for workers to report problems, that they are collected and noted. So they don’t recur. In other words, the standards have to breathe life into it in every workplace. It is an important tool. We can’t have standards for every single hazard in the California workplace. It provides guidance for things as divergent as safe patient handling and construction standards. It is an important tool. It shifts responsibility appropriately on the employer to identify particular hazards.

 

If you could change anything about Cal/OSHA, what would it be?

                a. Should enforcement be increased?
                b. Communications
                c. Training for inspectors

We have invested significant resources to improve internal training and we will continue to do so. It is important to keep people up technically, making sure they are as knowledgeable as possible and also knowledgeable about legal issues as well. Much of our work involves legal work, proper citation. I do believe that outreach and communication are vital. I wish we had more resources for that. We’re working closely with DIR communication folks, for example. I think those efforts on consultation, outreach efforts are important. Publicizing cases in the most egregious cases is important as deterrence. It makes people aware of circumstances and might make people think twice about health conditions.

 

Some observers say injury and illness rates are higher than they appear because employers find ways to hide injuries, or not record them. Do you agree this is a serious problem and if so, how should it be addressed?

I think is a serious problem. We have no way of knowing the degree of underreporting, but there are cases that come up all the time where we hear the employers have not reported. Those cases vary from longshoring to construction.

I think occupational illnesses are generally substantially underreported. Many are difficult cases because of the difficulty of locating the site or the worker. There is a lack of adequate resources that we all have for occupational health. So I really fear for the number of workers who are exposed to things where we will not see evidence of for years.

We are doing all we can to deal those problems. Yet it is not like an amputation, or a machine without a guard. We are committed to getting stronger legislation on reporting and failure to report at all, or failure to report timely. I think there has been some effort in the legislature to strengthen the Labor Code section. The problem of non-reporting can mean we are not able to be at the site to determine the cause of the injury or death. Maybe the site was altered. Because of a lack of reporting or timely reporting the worker was not able to get medical attention they needed.

Or we’re not there to prevent other workers from facing the same situation. We’ll be citing companies or businesses for this. This has been a serious issue for the OSHA appeals board, which has reduced penalties over the past couple of years. We are all taking a look at these enforcement issues of timeliness and adequate reporting.

Again, this is why we are looking for a greater consciousness of safety and health. We are working with the medical schools, health schools like UC Berkeley, UCLA and NIOSH. Helping our staff be better trained in safety and health has been a perennial problem. I hope during my time at Cal/OSHA I can build more bridges with those institutions. We don’t have pathologists on staff. We don’t have toxicologists on staff. We can reach out. We’re working with a number of professionals to raise awareness. But I think there still needs to be a penalty for those whose non-reporting has really detrimentally affected our investigation.

 

California  has a long history of crafting groundbreaking regulations that the rest of the country eventually picks up. What's the next one?

Our heat illness is a standard that could be strengthened. Our IIPP work, our ATD standard [aerosol transmissible disease], again, it needs to be rolled out. There needs to be more work. There are very important bloodborne pathogens. I am really hoping we can improve our lead standard. It is a hazard we’ve known about for centuries. It is not a new problem. Most of our effort is continuing on PELs. We’re hoping to make a lot more progress this year and the next couple of years with PELs.

The new safe patient handling, again, there are a number of states with it. We won’t be the first, but I hope we make important progress. We’ll also be looking at another ergonomic problem, hotel housekeepers, bending and lifting.

I think another plaguing problem is workplace violence. There again we’re looking to see the progress other states have made and where California can also advance. We have workplace violence in so many kinds of settings. It is a real challenge. It is a growing problem in public and private workplaces. Given our resources, that taps us out for the moment. If we can move our PEL process and work through standards, we would be proud, but there are many more to tackle. There is a number on the radar screen, but we would need a lot more resources.

 

Will AB 2774 resolve the problems cited by DOSH on serious violations and provide a more equitable appeals system? If not, how should it be reformed?

We haven’t seen many cases yet go through the appeals process. Really only one or two have made it. So it is too soon to know. Employers are not generally taking advantage of the provision in 2774 to respond to Cal/OSHA with rebuttal information that we would consider. I think employers are being advised not to do that. That was something intended to improve the process that is not happening.

One thing that is happening, the additional requirements of AB2774 are adding more time to our handling of cases and delaying increasing our lag time on cases. That’s not good. We need to look at that. One thing I’m hoping the appeals board will consider are our field inspectors’ testimony, as credible as it is, the new definition of serious is helpful. But we haven’t seen enough cases. But the only thing we do see is a real delay, which is not good for worker protection.

 

 

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