Feds warn Arizona about lowering workplace injury fines

Federal officials warned a commission overseeing Arizona's workplace safety agency that its practice of lowering fines on companies for worker injuries and deaths violates the state's laws and could jeopardize its ability to run its own safety program.

The letter from the Phoenix office director of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the Industrial Commission of Arizona recommends the commission cease those actions immediately.

The commission oversees the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which regulates workplace safety under an approved federal plan.

The federal agency investigated after a December complaint from a workplace safety group known as the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. The agency had been monitoring state commission meetings for months previously.

The May 4 letter from Arizona OSHA director Zachary Barnett said the investigation found the commission was arbitrarily lowering fines without following guidelines and "operating outside of its legal authority by reclassifying violations." The action also falls outside the OSHA-approved plan that allows Arizona to operate its own workplace safety agency in place of the federal agency.

The letter recommends that the commission "must cease altering the classification of ADOSH's violations."

The commission has disputed that it is operating outside OSHA rules by reviewing fines recommended by its workplace safety agency. Spokesman Bob Charles says it will respond accordingly to the May 4 letter.

Charles noted that injury rates have decreased significantly in the past decade in Arizona.

In a seven-page response to the agency's initial inquiry sent in February, Industrial Commission Chairman Dale Schultz lamented OSHA's recent "adversarial approach" and said it is meeting federal requirements that its safety oversight is "as least as effective" as a federal program. He also defended the commission review of citations before they are issued.

"Arizona's longstanding commission review practice is beneficial and fully in line with the OSH Act, OSHA's underlying regulations and Arizona law," Schultz wrote.

The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson examined the commission's records for a December story and found that it routinely reduces penalties large enough to merit its review — $2,500 or above. The newspaper found more than half the 139 penalty proposals the commission reviewed between January and the end of November 2016 were reduced.

The commission has significantly lowered two major fines in recent years. Last year, it erased a fine involving the state Department of Corrections stemming from the 2014 rape of a prison teacher. The $14,000 fine for failing to protect the teacher was erased in a settlement after prison officials told the state they had spent $600,000 improving security for workers, including installing cameras, having guards check more often on classroom teachers and issuing radios and pepper spray to civilian staff. The Corrections Department did not acknowledge wrongdoing.

In 2015, the commission erased $560,000 in fines assessed against the state Forestry Division for a 2012 wildfire near Yarnell that killed 19 firefighters.

As part of a settlement with the commission, the state agreed to enhance safety training for wildland fire crews and a host of other changes in how it oversees fires and crews. It also paid seven families who were not among a dozen who sued the state $10,000 each.

The workplace safety group complained to OSHA about the commission pre-reviewing fines for workplace safety violations proposed by ADOSH. The group called the commission meeting "a one-sided forum where employers can argue they should pay lower fines and be subject to a less severe class of violations for exposing workers to hazardous working conditions."

"When you reduce fines and downgrade violations again and again, you're sending a message that workers' lives are not valued," Peter Dooley, Tucson-based project safety consultant for the group, said in a statement.

More than half the states run their own workplace safety plans.