The Pulse

State Labor Dept. gets harsh critique

By: - September 29, 2010 4:00 pm

A sobering assessment came out this week of the North Carolina agency responsible for ensuring that workplaces in the state are safe.

The 41-page report and audit of released Monday by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational and Safety Division took N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry’s department to task on several worker safety issues.

Among the 12 problem areas the audit found was agency’s failure to keep families of fatal workplace accident victims fully informed about investigation results, misclassification and downplaying of the seriousness of violations in workplaces, a penalty system that allows for significant reductions in fines (including a 10 percent discount for “cooperation”), and a discrimination and retaliation division that didn’t follow federal procedures of how to investigate complaints.

Here’s what the report had to say about how North Carolina categorizes violations in workplaces:

It was noted that some violations that would most likely have been classified as serious by federal OSHA were classified as non-serious by the state, and some violations categorized as low or medium severity would have been categorized as high severity by federal OSHA.

The review of North Carolina’s Department of Labor was one of 25 the federal labor department conducted of Occupational Safety and Health programs  around the country. The audit looked at case files from October 2008 to September 2009. To read the full report, and all the recommendations made by federal authorities, go here.

The report also criticized how investigators in the retaliation and whistleblower cases division required that complaints be submitted in person as well as the conducting interviews with those claiming discrimination over the phone instead of in person. Federal OSHA procedures that call for in-person interviews in discrimination cases, to evaluate a person’s demeanor, except in unusual circumstances and also don’t carry requirements that a person write out complaints in person.

Settlements brokered or approved by the state in discrimination cases also had components that federal OSHA  rules would simply not approve, including “gag” provisions and waiving of individuals’ rights to sue or seek further action against their employers, according to the report.

Thoughts about this report? Feel free to share, either through comments here or emailing Policy Watch reporter Sarah Ovaska at [email protected]

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.