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Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess Resigns

The California Department of Industrial Relations announced today that Ellen Widess has resigned effective immediately from her position as Chief of the Division of Occupational Safety and Health. No specific reason was given for her resignation.

Widess, who became Chief in mid-April, 2011, served during a period of great stress.  During her tenure the number of experienced inspectors who left Cal/OSHA or sought reassignment significantly reduced the agency’s corporate memory.  Limitations on funding brought on by state budget constraints and the federal “sequestration” action reduced the agency’s ability to travel and to hire new inspectors, thus compounding the sense of an agency adrift.

At the same time Widess was seen by employers as fostering a divisive atmosphere in California’s safety and health community, seeking to punish “bad” employers while doing little to encourage good ones. A strong supporter of Fed/OSHA Chief Dr. David Michaels, Widess followed his lead in seeking changes to California’s VPP-Construction program which were intended to eliminate current members from the program and to discourage construction contractors from seeking VPP certification.

While the ramifications of Widess’s departure are still sinking in, we view the coming transition to a new Chief as a great opportunity to progress toward the goal of true respect and cooperation between the regulators and the regulated. As DIR Director Christine Baker recently told the AGC: “Our goal is to increase compliance with labor laws and not punish employers who want to abide by the law, so that honest businesses can thrive and profit in California.” We could not have said it better. To that end we offer some places to start:

  1. Return to using the citation notice letter (the Cal/OSHA 1BY) as it was intended to be used: As an invitation to dialog between employers and Cal/OSHA before citations are issued.
  2. Encourage that communication by announcing that the employer’s response to a 1BY letter will not be used against it either as justification for a reclassification of the citation or issuance of an additional citation, or as an admission against interest at hearing.
  3. Correct inspectors and DMs who do not review employer responses to 1BY letters in good faith.
  4. Encourage employers who “get it” by REALLY eliminating “gotcha” citations. There are plenty of companies former Chief John Howard referred to as “employers from Mars” who need citations.
  5. Say it publicly and to staff, say it often, and mean it: Inspectors have no quotas for written citations. Instead of assessing the value of an inspector’s work by its quantity, look to its quality.
  6. Free up Enforcement’s limited assets by having Consultation respond to non-serious complaint letters, with the power to refer employers to Enforcement if necessary.
  7. Allot resources more evenly between Enforcement and Consultation so that both can do their jobs more effectively.
  8. Use those freed-up Enforcement assets to go after the underground economy, which hurts both the State and employers who play by the rules.
  9. Change the rule that employers cannot avail themselves of Consultation’s services to seek advice on abatement while a citation is pending.
  10. Take advantage of our employers’ knowledge to educate inspectors before unleashing them to write uninformed citations.
  11. Reaffirm the stated goal of the VPP program that companies which achieve VPP status will be rewarded by being seen by Cal/OSHA as partners working together towards a safer California.
  12. Encourage the use of experimental variances where new and potentially innovative products and processes become available.

That’s for starters. Then we can talk about more structural changes.

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