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Kate Smiley

Manager of Safety & Regulatory Services for Associated General Contractors of California

Construction general contractors are fortunate to have Smiley on their side, as she leads AGC's Safety Council and makes herself heard to Cal/OSHA on regulatory matters.

Kate SmileyResume: Prior to joining AGC in 2010, she was EHS director for Turner Construction from 2006 to 2010. 

Schools:  Portland State University, and also studied history and political science at the University of Illinois.

Certifications/Designations:  ARM is under way 



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

There are a couple. The aging workforce is a huge issue for California, and nationally. Baby boomers continue to stay out there working full-time in the workforce. Someone who is an older employee typically represents knowledge, a lot of skill. They can change the future by being good mentors and good journeymen workers by sharing their knowledge and expertise. As we age, health issues may come into play. It seems a shift in focus to a systems approach, focusing on workplace policy that integrates health and wellness would be wise. Then the immigrant population coming in and filling gaps. They are typically working at a lower skill level. That creates a different set of problems. Each represents a different kind of employee and who have different needs.   

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

I really think that it is technology and advances in how equipment and tools are designed and manufactured. And another element of technology is in planning and design of the buildings, the use of tools like BIM [Building Information Modeling]. It is a great program that allows you to see the phases of work in sequence and visualize the building going up. You are able to visualize the progression of construction, the layers, the structural steel, the electrical and mechanical systems, the curtain wall and you see it in 3-D. It’s used for logistics and for planning the work. It identifies clashes where construction cannot proceed per plan. Project teams use it to identify the building life cycle safety issues, which can be eliminated through proactive design, or where some construction safety hazards can be mitigated through correct scheduling of the work. It is the best thing since sliced bread, from my opinion. There are costs associated with it, but as the cost comes down you will see it more.  

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

That is a difficult question. Language barriers and cultural differences are easy answers. Hispanics and Latinos many times are in higher-risk occupations in commercial and residential construction. There is the thought that Hispanics and Latinos suffer a disproportionate number of injuries and illness because they are in the lower-skilled, higher-risk occupations. National statistics illustrate laborers have a higher number of work-related deaths and injuries. Or that the helpers have a higher rate of nonfatal injuries and illness. Those are two job classifications that are low-skilled.  


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?

We like it the way it is. We would hope that the Feds model exactly the California program. They came very close in name, calling it I2P2, we are hopeful. Ours is a pretty effective and proven outline for a good safety program.


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

                a. Should enforcement be increased?

                b. Communications

                c. Training for inspectors

I would like the budget problem solved so they could get training for inspectors. There are some groups out there, like the AGC, that are available to help with hands-on, real-time experiences for the inspectors, but Cal/OSHA needs to be able to support their employees and provide good training for their inspectors so they recognize what they’re looking at when they’re in the field. Everybody recognizes the need for more training. Specialty inspectors are another topic for DIR to consider in light of staffing restraints.


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 don’t necessarily believe that most employers find ways to hide injuries. I believe there may be an education issue and that people need to learn how to record. I think we make an assumption that everyone understands the system. I think that we have small companies and new businesses that may not know. There is also another thing happening. Occupational illnesses may not get recorded because it is so difficult to correctly identify them as work-related. So I don’t think there is necessarily any malicious intent not to record. I think, more than anything, it is education. We need to teach them how to record, especially small businesses and new business.


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

It is likely something environmental.


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?

I think those cases are just now beginning to work their way through the system and we don’t have real answers yet. Some attorneys on our council suggest the appeals process will be overloaded and the system is already stressed. So we probably need to work on the language a bit more. Employers always want clarity. Some say it only serves as proof that the division's goal has shifted from fostering workplace safety to mere regulatory compliance. We shall see. I hope not.


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

Yes. The issuance of a citation really needs to be considered more in context with the goal of achieving a safe and healthful workplace. We believe that really is the intent of the act. And, yes, the citation is an important element, but can’t be the only part of the process. Most, almost all, employers want to do the right thing and are trying hard to do just that. We really want strict and fair enforcement. It is far easier, and better use of state resources to work in a collaborative way and recognize there may be an education element to an inspection. Again, most Employers want to do the right thing. We don’t want there to be an emphasis on a punitive process.


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

It would be very helpful if collaborative programs could be expanded. That’s what really helps small employers, like the [federal] SHARP [Safety & Health Achievement Recognition Program].


What about safety do employers struggle with the most?
There are a multitude of regulations that are sometimes conflicting and burdensome regulation is a struggle for employers. But the other part is employers developing that safety culture where employees’ consider safety in their approach every day, so it is completely integrated into each activity and all processes. It is not a stand-alone department or activity. That is a cultural shift that companies are working toward, always.

AGC just held a Safety Awards of Excellence program. We recognized companies that had gone above and beyond the call of duty to provide safe and healthy systems and programs for their employees. The companies that win the awards have consistently integrated their employees into the process.


Are there reliable and knowledgeable training people available?



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

The safety of jobsites can be broken down on lots of different levels. Go back for a moment to technology improvements and planning through design. Those types of technology or programs help eliminate completely or engineer out the hazards and help define solutions before we begin building. Training and subsequent ongoing reinforcement that focuses the supervisors and the employees on hazard recognition and incident prevention are the most important. But remember that’s in the field. That’s the last point that you can make some safety impact. Other items: Teaching people how to plan their work. Allowing time to identify the hazards and plan how the work is going to be affected by others working in the same area. Asking the questions of hazard analysis: any training required? Any PPE needed? Do you need training on any of the tools you are going to be using? That’s the reinforcing kind of safety training that happens on a daily basis. That daily, weekly hazard recognition training is setting and reinforcing the mind-set that is important. Then an employee can carry it with them. Safety is not just something that happened that day, not connected to anything. When that is done consistently, the employees are set up for success then and for the future.


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

What’s in my inbox? Let’s see, the Center to Protect Worker’s Rights. Anything from ASSE, the American Society of Safety Engineers, ENR. Here’s one, the Institute for Empirical Research & Economics, in Zurich on “The Reciprocity of Gifts in the Workplace,” a study about incentive programs, and if they work to motivate employees to more productivity. What we do is read everything we can get our hands on. We have a “suggested reading” list on our website, on the Safety page. What we need to do more of is read what comes from Europe, Canada, or from other areas. We need to look outside our boundaries. Innovation comes from many minds.


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?

Almost 20 years ago, I switched careers to construction and began in the micro-contamination end of it, during construction of semiconductor fabricators and bio-farms. Shifted over to safety from there.


What’s interesting about it now?

It is pretty compelling work to help people make choices that better their lives in some way. Whether it’s the way a load of materials is picked up or identifying a gap in training that the association can provide or it is that one conversation where you have influence on how an employer sets up a construction project or an employee approaches their job in the field or helping a regulator understand the construction industry. Those are compelling reasons to be involved in safety. Everybody benefits. There is not a point where no one benefits. The job is great because you are always working to make things better.


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