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Jeremy Smith

Deputy Legislative Director, State Building and Construction Trades Council   Jeremy Smith

Personable in demeanor and passionate about safety, Smith fights the fight for workers' rights. He’s a familiar sight at the Capitol testifying on challenges that workers face and keeping the other side accountable. 

Resume: Smith worked for six years for the California Labor Federation and prior to that served three years with the Illinois AFL-CIO.

Schools:  He was educated at the University of Illinois at Springfield and Illinois State University.

Boards & Commissions:  Smith is a member of the California Workforce Investment Board, Green Collar Jobs Council, Consumer Federation of California Board and the WorkSafe Board of Directors.

Mentor:  Angie Wei, legislative director of the California Labor Federation

Favorite Book:  “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins”

 

Q&A

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

From my perspective, lack of funding is the most important issue. Generally, there is a lack of funding for adequate numbers of inspectors. We lag behind other states in terms of inspectors-to-employees ratio. We have a little over 18 million workers in this state and, on a good day, 180-200 inspectors in the field. That’s one of the biggest issues that I see. That alone makes up the top three, that’s it.

 

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

I would quibble that injury and illness rates are decreasing because there are fewer injuries and illnesses. I believe that there is a real problem with workers reporting injuries and we need to get a handle on making it easier for workers to report injuries without fear of losing their job or suffering other retribution from their employer. I’ve been to hotels, for example, and had to walk in through the back door and past a break room and saw on bulletin boards notices for pizza parties or other prizes if the workers go a month with no reported injuries. Employers offer cash rewards for staying injury-free! [They give employees incentives not to report injuries.] I’d want to get a better handle on this type of practice, which is rampant, before I put a lot of faith in the numbers and make it easier and more verifiable. We need to make sure there aren’t workers out there being coerced not to report. I feel like that’s the first part. The second, if I were to think of some great leap, is that there is not too much spent on prevention right now. If we could think of some way to prevent injuries ahead of time, we’d save lives and keep people whole. There’s also limited funding for programs that track and analyze workplace injury data. Access to quality care is another thing we could use. It’d be nice if there were occupational clinics or doctors partially funded by the state who could help injured workers. They know what to look for. The next great leap could be something like that: prevention, data to analyze, and some sort of network of doctors funded publicly to look at workers when they’re ill.

 

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

Latinos come to the United States, risking their lives to work away from their families on their own. It’s nothing anybody wants to do. Perhaps we could spend less time worrying about undocumented workers coming to the United States and put some time and energy into keeping them safe at work. They’re here, and they’re risking their lives at jobs that nobody else wants to do. We should put money into prevention and inspection at jobsites where this population of workers works. This goes back to the first question: We need more money and more inspectors. We need better enforcement, which could keep the whole worker population safer.

 

The Injury and Illness Prevention Program is the basic safety requirement for California employers. Now Fed-OSHA appears ready to adopt 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?

We can always revise regulations to make them better. Nothing is ever perfect. I think adding something that would require employers to identify hazards and act before injuries occur would be good.

There should be provisions for worker involvement—mandating health and safety committees. Wherever there is a health and safety committee, there are employees who are informed about safety and who know they have the support of their employer to spend time keeping the workplace safe. There needs to be some mechanism to keep workers involved, so that they don’t feel fear for asking to be involved. There should be some analysis of near misses and incidents and the root cause of those accidents. We spend so much time focusing on the aftermath and not enough focusing on how things happened and how to avoid it in the future. There must be some realization by a broader segment of management that there is management accountability when a worker gets hurt. Workers don’t run the workplace. Managers need to look at themselves to see if they missed something on their end about getting information to employees. There should be a broad application of IIPP at the federal level so that agricultural labor contractors, and non-fixed workplaces are included. Domestic workers, folks who work house-to-house, need an IIPP program to make sure they stay safe as well.

 

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

This goes back to question one: more inspectors and more money for Cal/OSHA. Money could be used to do good in a lot of places. Money would allow Cal/OSHA to have a very robust medical program; there are no occupational health doctors on Cal/OSHA staff right now. It’d be nice to have more pay for the safety engineers throughout the system. Cal-OSHA has to compete with the private sector for these workers. There should be some recognition that these are advanced-degree-holding folks, and they need to be compensated properly. Just in general, there needs to be more funding for Cal/OSHA, which would also mean more staff at the Appeals Board and at the Standards Board.

 

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?

Yes, it is a serious problem and there should be legislation in place that bans reward or incentive programs for keeping workplaces safe. It’s all well and good to want a pizza party at the end of the month, but if it comes at the expense of reporting injuries, workers will be loath to [report their injuries.] They don’t want to be the ones to ruin a reward. One way to mitigate that is to ban those practices.

 

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

It’s hard to tell what the next big one will be. With the new administration coming in, we’ll have to wait and see which direction Ellen wants to head in terms of new regulations. Coming off doing three first-in-the-nation regulations – one for diacetyl, one for heat illness, and one for airborne transmissible diseases – I’m not sure what is out there that could and should be next. I think the many regulations could be improved and I hope to help with that over the next few years.

 

Does the current system of citation by DOSH and appeal to the Appeals Board work? If not, how should it be reformed?

I think it could work a lot better. The OSHA Appeals Board needs more administrative law judges and more staffing in general. DOSH needs more staff so they can write better or more citations. That way, when they get to the Appeals Board they can’t get thrown out on a technicality or get easily defeated by a sharp employer attorney exploiting loopholes. The Appeals Board needs more administrative law judges in place to hold more hearings at different places in the state, like Fresno and San Diego. Fresno is the only place in the Central Valley that has held hearings in the past. They need to be able to expand their reach farther than Oakland, Costa Mesa and Sacramento. It’s no secret that we have a lot of problems with how they transact their business. We’re in the midst of advocating for changes there and I feel that some of those changes will make the process between DOSH and the Appeals Board work better. I have spent a lot of my time at the Appeals Board the past 18 months pushing for change, and while some positive change occurred, it is occurring at much too slow a pace. Hopefully, again, with a new administration. change will occur more quickly.

 

Should DOSH approach enforcement with more of an eye toward achieving compliance, rather than looking for violations to cite? And if so, how could such an approach work?

This gets back to the foundation of our conversation: more inspectors. It would be great to achieve more compliance and talk to employers about what they’ve seen and what they can improve on instead of giving a citation. I feel like they’ve got to concentrate on giving citations until they can get more funding because there’s a limited amount of time in the day and there’s a limited amount of inspectors. There will always be a large contingent of bad employers out there who will try to use the small number of inspectors to their advantage. Until we get rid of them, we’ll have to concentrate on getting them to comply with citations so that we send the message to bad employers that if you keep your workplace unsafe, you will be cited. I feel that citations do lead to compliance.

 

What should Cal/OSHA do to help small employers create safe workplaces and comply with Title 8 regulations?

There are only a few IBMs and Ciscos and Googles [large employers] in the world. Small employers make up the backbone of the economy. Some employer advocates are for giving small employers a break for first offenses – a “get out of jail free” card. There was a bill last year that would have given small employers a break for first-time violations of certain offenses. We opposed that bill. I don’t think that’s the way to go. If you open a business, you need to get acquainted with the rules and law. Therefore, there needs to be more outreach to small employers. They aren’t as sophisticated as large employers with HR departments who are trying to keep track of the laws that, if followed, will help keep their workers safe. I would say better outreach to small employers is a solution, but I don’t know what form that could take. When a small employer applies for their business licenses, at some point along the way, they are told (or should be) of Cal/OSHA and their responsibilities under the Labor Code. More robust and in-depth education than what they are getting now on the front end as they’re getting their business together would be helpful.

 

What about safety do employers struggle with the most?

 That’s a good question. I would say one thing that employers struggle with the most is keeping the bad employers in check. We have a lot of good employers in California. A lot of them try to follow the law. But there are many, many that don’t. So much of what we do with regulation and legislation is because there are such bad employers out there who treat workers very poorly. We have to legislate and regulate to them. I feel if the employer community could get a better handle on the bad actors, the employer community as a whole would be affected in a positive way when it comes to labor advocates such as myself writing legislation and regulations to protect workers. I work in the building trades and we have a lot of employers who are signatories to unions and they do that for many reasons, not least of which is that we can provide them with the most highly trained workers in the state.

But also, they believe what we believe: Fair wages, health and safety and a voice on job are important considerations for workers. If more employers and more contractors believed that way, I think things would be easier for both employers and workers when it comes to health and safety, and other issues in the workplace.

Even those businesses that aren’t union but still try hard to follow the law have trouble competing with the underground economy. This is another thing that employers – good ones – struggle with. It is vast and it’s deep, and unfortunately, very prevalent in California. Again, that gets back to my original premise: more inspectors and more money for the agencies to inspect the workplaces. That would get bad employers caught. And if you catch a few bad employers and make some examples out of them, that would get other employers to at least toe the line and treat their workers better.

 

Are there reliable and knowledgeable training people available?

Yes, but they are probably not available, especially from the government angle, because they are too busy inspecting workplaces. I prefer we put the emphasis on hiring people to do inspections before we begin to hire people to do training. There are so many more employers out there who are not good and who need to be inspected. I think more inspections lead to safer workplaces, which is what you want. I think you can get to the same place with more inspections than with more training. There are many inspectors at Cal/OSHA who would make excellent trainers – I am sure – but they need to be in the field inspecting at least until we can get Cal/OSHA adequately staffed.

I would love to be in a place to have an advisory committee to talk about how Cal/OSHA could get out in the field to do training of employers. I don’t know that I would ever be able to agree that we would give employers a break on citations if they underwent a training exercise with Cal/OSHA though. I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that we would have enough people at Cal/OSHA to even have that conversation. I don’t even know what that world looks like. So I don’t know that I would ever be able to go that far.

I’d like to be in a place to have that conversation, though. It would probably be helpful to have more training and also training for the trainers. That would be a concern I would have as well. What are they actually training on?

 

What kind of training is the most crucial for employers to provide?

I think it is crucial for employers to let employees know how the employer wants the workplace kept safe and for employers’ actions to show workers that they (employers) mean it. If the employer was coming to the worker and saying, “We want to have a safe workplace and this is what I need you to do,” that would show the workers that the employer cares about them. I think it would go a long way toward making workers feel empowered to speak up if there is a safety concern and to know that they work for an employer who is trying to keep the workplace safe. There is a fine line there now. I talked earlier about walking through the bowels of a hotel and seeing a sign on a bulletin board offering a “free pizza party if we go home with no health and safety violations.” We don’t need that kind of crap, right? I think it would be very helpful to have joint labor/management health and safety committees be more prevalent and encouraged so there can be a combination employee/employer group of people to help employees understand health and safety laws. When it comes to naming a specific law that is most crucial, I don’t want to point to one specific law. I think they are all important. Depending on the industry, some laws or regulations may be more important to that industry than others.

 

What else do you read to get your occupational safety and health information?

Frankly, “Cal-OSHA Reporter.” I may quibble with some of their slant on stories, but they are pretty good about getting out there semi-regularly with what is going on in health and safety. There is very little in the newspaper at all about health and safety. So I don’t pay attention there. I am a member of different Google listservs, with people that keep me abreast of what’s going throughout the country. So much of what I pick up is from talking among stakeholders, whether it is about a pending bill, or about regulatory discussions going on.

 

How did you get started in safety? Was there any particular experience in your career that triggered your interest in safety? What’s interesting about it? What’s interesting about it now?

I moved to California from Illinois in 2004. A health and safety person from Cal/OSHA, Bob Barish, called me and said we’re having this meeting, an advisory meeting on a chemical called glutaraldehyde. AFSCME cared about this chemical and the representative from AFSCME that I met through this process helped show me the ropes. I also met Fran Schreiberg at this hearing, and she showed me some of the ropes, too, to say the least. I got involved that way. Cal/OSHA reached out to labor to see if anybody cared about this chemical and to see if we would show up. That is common at these advisory committee meetings, by the way. It is two or three labor people and 25 industry people. I didn’t come out here with an interest, but I fell into it and I started to like it.

It is much easier being at the Building Trades [Council] than the Labor Federation because so much of what we do in health and safety is specific to construction, which narrows my scope. I also have an interest and a responsibility to keep my workers safe, the workers that I represent. Even if I didn’t like health and safety, that alone would keep me interested in it.

 

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