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Responding to to Cal/OSHA Chief’s Resignation

Cross-posted from Worksafe.

On September 4, 2013, Ellen Widess resigned from her position as Chief of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH), also known as Cal/OSHA. Worksafe and many of our allies among unions, worker centers, and OSH professionals were caught off guard by the news; even more startling was the characterization of the OSH community’s reaction by the Cal-OSHA Reporter, which claimed that “both employer and labor representatives were practically jubilant at the news.” Worksafe was the only organization that was quoted on the record; we praised her work in carrying out the mission of the agency: to protect the health and safety of California workers. 

A little more than a week later, the Cal-OSHA Reporter printed a handful of letters from agency staff, worker advocate organizations, and OSH professionals who supported her record and chastised the publication for its biased reporting. TheCal-OSHA Reporter mentioned in passing but did not print any of the letters from organized labor. Her detractors remain unidentified. 

The most important unanswered question is whether many of the pro-worker health and safety initiatives revived, created, or expanded under Ms. Widess’ administration will continue. We fear that the business community may use her departure as an opening to push for Cal/OSHA to move in the opposite direction. An attorney who specializes in representing employers in OSH administrative cases published a blog post within minutes of the announcement that contained his wish list of changes. Clearly, the worker advocacy community needs to come together to effectively articulate and express our own views, backed up with information and stories from workers in the field. 

Before discussing the next steps Worksafe will be taking, we want to first express our appreciation of Ms. Widess for her public service and the important advances in worker health and safety made during her tenure, despite limited resources. We particularly want to applaud Cal/OSHA for its recent efforts to be more accessible and transparent to workers, notably those in low-wage/high risk jobs but without union protection, and especially those most vulnerable to exploitation due to working as temp workers or misclassification as “independent contractors.” 

Widess participated in and gave compelling speeches at a number of conferences and events attended by labor and worker center health and safety activists. She not only showed up; she brought along key district and regional managers to the meetings, making them easily accessible to attendees and helping to foster better communication.

For the first time in a very long while, the message to workers was that the agency was there to listen to and work with them. Worker confidence in the agency grew, and advocates began to file more effective complaints that addressed long-standing problems.

This openness extended beyond our Bay Area community: when regional advisory committee meetings scheduled for southern California were cancelled due to state government travel restrictions, she arranged videoconferences so that both the labor and business organizations outside of the area could also participate. 

During Widess' time as Chief, Cal/OSHA issued several important citations. Following the August 2012 fire at the Richmond Chevron refinery, the agency issued almost $1 million in fines. Investigating warehouse worker complaints, Cal/OSHA issued two sets of citations to warehouse owners and their temp staffing agencies, thereby preventing one party from “passing the buck” for health and safety on to the other. The agency successfully reached a landmark agreement with the union representing hotel housekeepers in response to complaints of musculoskeletal injuries, requiring the establishment of a joint labor-management housekeeping committee tasked with identifying best practices to prevent injuries. 

Under Widess, the unit that develops recommendations for health-based standards for the OSH Standards Board was able to reach consensus on proposals for complex standards. Consensus was reached on safe patient handling and existing requirements for employers to pay for any required personal protective equipment used by their employees. The agency took on many other unanticipated and resource-intensive projects to ensure worker health and safety, including full investigations of the state’s five psychiatric hospitals and supervising huge public works construction projects. 

Widess successfully increased the medical and nursing capabilities of the agency so that heat-related fatalities could be fully investigated and other important health standards could be enforced. She responded to a series of confined death fatalities early in her administration with the creation of a Special Emphasis Program and then backed it up with clear guidelines and training for compliance staff. When she couldn’t hire more bilingual inspectors, she gave incentives to staff who committed to learning Spanish. The unit to train inspectors became reinvigorated. 

She worked with the Labor Commissioner to improve referrals of worker retaliation cases and to integrate education of employers and employees during worksite visits; over 250 referrals were made since this joint effort began, covering not only OSH-related retaliation but also wage theft. Cal/OSHA has also been an integral part of the multi-agency Labor Enforcement Task Force (LETF), which targets low-road employers who typically violate a host of related laws around workers’ rights. 

Moving forward: This fall, Worksafe will continue to work with advocates as well as the new and veteran staff at Cal/OSHA and other state programs with OSH responsibilities to discuss the full range of initiatives needed to protect workers. An effective state OSHA program that can carry out this mandate does a great service to all who value a level playing field for businesses and a safe working environment for our workforce of over 18 million people.