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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
HomeNewsLocal newsOSHA: V.I. Government Is Lax in Protecting Its Workers

OSHA: V.I. Government Is Lax in Protecting Its Workers

The territory’s program for protecting its workers has been seriously lacking for many years, according to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials. (Shutterstock image)

For years, the V.I. government has been doing a very poor job of ensuring its workplaces are safe and healthy for its thousands of employees. That’s the message from the federal agency with oversight – the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA has been citing the weakness of the local program for years in annual reports that get little public scrutiny and, according to OSHA, not enough internal attention either.

A small division within the V.I. Labor Department known as the Virgin Islands Division of Safety and Health, or VIDOSH, is responsible for monitoring territorial government work sites and conditions and for reviewing, evaluating, and addressing complaints from local government employees.

The division is charged with implementing the State Plan for health and safety, which is supposed to be “at least as effective” as OSHA.

VIDOSH does not deal with private sector employers/employees, nor with the relatively few V.I. residents who work at federal jobs in the territory. Those are handled by OSHA itself, out of its regional office in Puerto Rico.

The V.I. Labor Department is now developing a “Corrective Action Plan” to address OSHA concerns, according to the department’s Public Information Officer, Davina Martinez, who responded to questions from the Source.

The most recent Federal Annual Monitoring Evaluation report from OSHA was a review covering fiscal year 2022, and it conveys the administration’s increasing frustration with VIDOSH.

The report criticizes the division for its “inability” to address what it calls significant program issues “that have been outstanding for more than a decade,” and it says that the program “continues to be ineffective in protecting the safety and health of Virgin Islands’ state and local workers.”

The report does not identify specific complaints, which can be wide-ranging.  Martinez said that currently, the most common complaint is about indoor air quality.

According to OSHA, not only has VIDOSH been slack in responding to reports of safety violations, it was less than helpful in educating local officials about safety and health issues.  For two years in a row, the division failed to conduct any consultation visits. Those visits are inspections of a workplace, made at the invitation of an employer, with the intention of spotting any potential problem areas and advising the employer about how to correct them. They do not involve citations or penalties.

OSHA also found that staff at VIDOSH had no real idea about how to handle whistleblower complaints. There were five of them in FY ’22.

“Issues were found from the very beginning of the process,” the report says and indicates there were problems throughout the various steps, from acknowledging receipt of a complaint to verifying its authenticity to contacting the parties involved and keeping a record of the process. The lack of documentation of all the necessary steps “prevented the investigation from being credible and withstanding scrutiny.”

Things got so bad at VIDOSH by 2020 that OSHA designated the V.I. program a “high-risk grantee” and placed restrictions on its federal grants.

The deficiencies have caused the loss of some federal funding. In the eight years prior to the most recent report, it “lapsed” federal funds six times. In FY ’22 alone, it “de-obligated” nearly $150,000 in federal funding, OSHA said, “due to their failure to meet their mandatory grant activities.”

Among other conclusions, the report said that in FY ’22, VIDOSH conducted only 25 health and safety inspections, which was little more than half (56 percent) of its inspection goal for the year, and that there was little follow-up even for those. Five months after the close of FY ’22 – in February 2023, when the annual report was written – 18 of 25 of those cases were still “open,” and 10 were still awaiting citations to be issued by VIDOSH.

That was consistent with the division’s failures in previous years when it “did not issue citations in a timely manner, secure timely abatement of hazards, close files timely, and establish an enforcement presence in V.I.,” according to OSHA.

While it accepts some of OSHA’s criticism, Labor disputes the characterization of foot-dragging on citations and abatement measures. Martinez said the department is awaiting funding from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) for some of the pending items.

She also said, “Staffing issues have been addressed.”  The lack of a full staff was blamed for some of the division’s shortcomings.

According to Martinez, “Two new inspectors were hired last year—one for each island. The process has begun to fill an additional inspector position for the island of St. Croix. New inspectors must complete OSHA-required training before going on the field. Currently, the assistant director is conducting the inspections. A consultant was also hired last year on the island of St. Croix. One administrative assistant was hired in St. Thomas, and a vacant administrative position in St. Croix should be filled shortly.”

At the moment, however, the division is without a head.

The long-time director recently resigned, and the office is being managed by the assistant director, according to Martinez.

Responding to a Source inquiry, a spokesman for the U.S. Labor Department expounded on the success of OSHA and the reason why the Virgin Islands’ state plan for implementing its health and safety standards is important.

“Since the OSHA Act’s passage (53 years ago), workplace deaths have fallen about 60 percent and occupational injury and illness rates have fallen significantly,” he said, adding that during that time, U.S. employment has nearly doubled.

He cited a 2012 university study that OSHA inspections also saved an estimated $6 billion for employers nationwide.

“The study found that there was a 9.4 percent drop in injury claims at the workplace in the four years following an inspection and a 25 percent average savings on workers’ compensation costs compared to similar, non-inspected companies,” he said. “An effective VIDOSH program could bring similar results to the USVI.”

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