Md. worker safety agency too easy on employers, U.S. audit says State officials say report was politically motivated


The state's worker safety and health agency has been too easy on Maryland's employers and slow in pursuing discrimination cases, according to a federal audit released yesterday.

Launched after a fire killed 25 workers at a North Carolina chicken plant in September, an evaluation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that Maryland settled too many safety-violation cases informally and failed to adequately verify that safety problems, once identified, had been remedied.

Maryland's evaluation came as part of a federal effort to study the 20 states that run their own worker-safety programs.

Maryland labor officials disagreed with the findings, arguing that the state is being sufficiently tough on unsafe work sites and charging that the report was politically motivated.

"Some of these deficiencies are very, very childlike," said Nancy Burkheimer, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Licensing and Regulation, which oversees the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health program.

"OSHA got their tail burned [because of poor oversight of North Carolina's safety program], and now they are beating on the states," she said. "They are trying to please Congress."

North Carolina, the site of the fire, received the toughest criticism. OSHA gave the state 90 days to beef up its inspection and enforcement of workplace safety or risk having the federal government take over enforcement.

Maryland's problems were less serious, and many of the complaints are already being addressed, OSHA said.

In a letter to Henry Koellein Jr., the state commissioner of labor and industry, OSHA officials said, "None of the deficiencies identified in your program is insurmountable." The agency gave Maryland a month to draft an improvement plan and six months to make "significant progress" toward improving its oversight.

Mr. Koellein, whose division contains MOSH, attributed part of the problem to the state's budget and cost-cutting.

And he said OSHA was wrong to emphasize collecting big fines.

MOSH tries to settle cases informally rather than take employers to court to win big fines. "We are not interested in amounts of penalties. All the money we collect goes into the general fund," he said. "We want employers to clean up problems, not fight us with lawyers for months."

Mr. Koellein said that when he arrived with the Schaefer administration five years ago, business owners were "hollering and crying harassment." But "that has subsided," he said.

He said his policy has made employers happy and cut down on worker fatalities.

Martin Schuncke, a Baltimore-area plumber and president of a plumbers union local, said that MOSH has been too lenient.

"I've been on different jobs where MOSH inspectors gave the employers a lot of warning time. I've never seen them do a decent job and really go after an employer. And when they do go to court, the amount of fines they get is pitiful," he said.

But many employers think "MOSH is doing a pretty good job," said Roy Littlefield, director of the Maryland Service Station and Automotive Repair Association.

Mr. Littlefield said he has heard praise of MOSH from the 1,500 small-business owners who belong to his organization.

MOSH 'deficiencies'

Federal audit found that the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency:

* Failed to adopt all federal regulations as state standards within the required six-month period.

* Found fewer "serious" violations at work sites than inspectors in other states. That was attributed to Maryland's failure to classify problems as serious, even when the federal government considers them serious.

* Did not sufficiently verify that problems had been remedied by employers.

* Did not collect sufficient penalties, instead settling too many safety-violation cases informally for small fines.

* Has too big a backlog of discrimination cases because it hasn't filled one of its two positions for investigators.

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