HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The federal government plans to discuss the potential of partially taking over workplace safety regulation from the state's Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health Division in the state Department of Labor later this spring, sources said.
The U.S. Labor Department has been concerned about understaffing and a lack of training for state workplace safety inspectors for several years, since the end of the administration of former Gov. Linda Lingle, which abolished about 60 percent of the state's labor inspector positions.
The state Department of Labor regulates safety at thousands of workplaces across Hawaii, covering the people who work in office buildings, in kitchens and restaurants and those who deliver goods and services or work at stores.
The occupational safety division, known as HIOSH, also inspects workplaces such as construction sites to make sure they're safe. Earlier this year, the division fined the developers and contractors at a Maili townhouse project more than $40,000 for dozens of violations.
State inspectors also investigate workplace deaths, such as the case of the worker who was partially buried by dirt and died at a construction site in Waialae Iki in February 21.
Sources told Hawaii News Now that officials from the state labor department, headquartered on Punchbowl Street downtown, will meet with the federal government in May to discuss whether the feds will partially takeover workplace safety inspections or have federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration experts train and mentor employees in a department that lost more than half its staff in the last few years.
Donalyn Dela Cruz, Gov. Neil Abercrombie's spokeswoman, said, "We have the desire to improve on a number of areas but are still in the process of learning what the appropriate next steps are." She declined further comment.
The labor department has restored most of its vacant inspector positions. But inspectors who investigate workplace safety and health require special training and certification that can take months or years, so employees said they suffer from a lack of expertise among new hires and have only one branch chief out of five supervisory positions to help train others.
There are no workplace safety inspectors on the islands of Maui and Kauai, a source said.
One option is what's called "concurrent jurisdiction," where the state and the federal government would share enforcement of workplace safety laws in Hawaii, sources said. Under that arrangement, federal OSHA staffers could provide training and resources to state labor investigators until the state meets certain benchmarks agreed to by both the state and the feds, a source said.
In 2010, during the final months of Lingle's term, the feds threatened the Republican governor with partially taking over the workplace safety division.
A September 2010 letter to Lingle from David Michaels, Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health, raised concerns because the number of workplace safety inspections had dropped to just 426 a year in 2009, about a 90 percent decrease from 25 years earlier.
Now that partial takeover may happen on a more cooperative basis, involving the Democratic administrations of Abercrombie and President Barack Obama.
In the 2010 letter, Michaels said, "Among the issues of concern is the degree of training provided to compliance officers, including the lack of staff trained or knowledgeable in process safety management."
Allowing the federal government to take over some operations of the workplace safety branch "would all the state time to recover its program effectiveness while at the same time demonstrating the state's commitment to assuring the best protection possible for the working men and women of Hawaii," Michaels said.
In 2010, Lingle's final year in office, the Democratically-controlled legislature approved funds to restore 12 labor inspectors, but the Lingle administration never filled any of those positions before she left office in December 2010. The federal government funds 50 percent of the salaries in the HIOSH Division, so each position costs the state half the actual salary amounts.