Feds temporarily taking over some Hawaii workplace safety inspections

Feds temporarily taking over some Hawaii workplace safety inspections
Published: Jul. 18, 2012 at 8:25 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 18, 2012 at 10:56 PM HST
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Honolulu (HawaiiNewsNow) – The federal government begins conducting some workplace safety inspections for the State Labor Department next month as part of the recovery from budget cuts and layoffs under the administration of former Gov. Linda Lingle, state officials said Wednesday.

Hawaii joins 26 other states whose workplace safety programs are being partially handled by the federal government, the possibility of which was first reported by Hawaii News Now in April.

At the state Labor Department's workplace safety office, there are empty facilities where 32 of 51 inspectors' positions were eliminated in 2009 by Lingle's administration.

As a result, for the next three years, federal inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will take over some workplace safety inspections in Hawaii.

"We see this as a golden opportunity for the Abercrombie administration to work with the Obama administration to improve workers' safety in our state," said Dwight Takamine, the director of the State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, referring to his boss, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and President Barack Obama.

Starting next month, the feds will handle safety inspections in the hotel and restaurant industries in Hawaii, as well as at manufacturing plants.

The state's inspectors will continue to check on safety conditions at construction sites and in the transportation industry, such as the airlines.

When Lingle reduced inspectors' positions by 61 percent three years ago, workplace safety inspections dropped by 50 percent within a four-year period.

"It created certainly limitations in our staffing capability.  It also created limitations that lead to deficiencies," Takamine said.

While the state has filled most of those vacant safety inspector positions, it's still dealing with the learning curve for new inspectors, who can take two to three years to be fully trained.

"We have a lot of new employees.  A lot of employees or staff who are inexperienced who need training just so that they can get up to speed in terms of effective enforcement," Takamine said.

The feds will pick up about 200 inspections in this next year, while the state plans to handle 300, giving state officials time to train new staff.

In the next year, federal inspections will decrease to 150 and state inspections will increase to about 480. The year after that, federal inspections will drop to roughly 100 and the state will handle about 640 inspections as the state gradually transitions back up to full staffing capacity.

"I think we have an opportunity, not only to restore the capacity we had before the huge loss of staffing, but we have an opportunity to even exceed that," Takamine said. "Basically, what this does is it allows us to strengthen our existing programs."

The feds have committed an unspecified amount of money and staffing to help the state improve its workplace inspection program.  But Takamine admitted that could change if Republican Mitt Romney is elected president in November or if Congress cuts funding to the U.S. Labor Department. 

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