"Our goal here is to do the program correctly," said Vt. Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan.
Noonan is answering tough questions about the state's poor performance on a recent audit of its Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or VOSHA program.
"My first reaction was take everything that they've said in this report to heart and start working on it," Noonan said.
The report revealed "severe deficiencies" in VOSHA's fatality investigations, like failing to follow fundamental investigative procedures and improperly documenting fatality incidents. In once case the feds say compliance officers did not interview everyone with firsthand knowledge of the incident, failed to document how and why the fatality occurred and overlooked safety violations at the scene.
"We wanted to make sure that everyone had a refresher and then we wanted to make sure that we had sort of a team of people who were very intensely trained so they'd actually be better at doing those cases," Noonan said.
The feds also slammed the state on its discrimination investigations, or cases where employees were punished for reporting a workplace hazards. Auditors concluded that VOSHA investigators didn't have sufficient training or supervision and their bosses had even less experience. In some cases they found conclusions were reached prematurely and investigators made "no distinction between fact and uncorroborated assertion."
"And we don't disagree. We think that there was much more need for discrimination and retaliation training among our VOSHA staff," Noonan said.
These new issues just add to the load. The feds found VOSHA fell short of its yearly inspection goal by 85 cases and failed to fix past problems. They say in 2011 VOSHA was still inaccurately classifying, or downplaying, the severity of incidents, reducing too many financial penalties without proper documentation, and failing to send timely fatality notification to next of kin.
"I do think that that's true. There were issues that were not resolved, but one of the things that we've done is develop a much closer partnership with the federal OSHA people," Noonan said. "There was not as much of a focus on VOSHA under the prior administration. And I think that this governor is very committed to making sure that our VOSHA program works well."
Since the report's release the commissioner said the feds have retrained the Vermont staff. VOSHA's federal counterparts in Boston visit the state roughly once a month and conduct weekly calls with state officials. All fatality, discrimination and retaliation cases are sent to the feds for review before they're closed.
"They put their eyes on it again. They give it to their experts to see if we've missed anything. That's been a collaboration that's benefited Vermont and benefited our staff -- and they were more than willing to do it. I just don't think anyone ever asked them before to help us learn to be better," Noonan said.
The feds made a number of other suggestions that VOSHA plans to implement -- like creating a new supervisor position to divvy up some of the existing workload. The feds have also given VOSHA a 30-thousand dollar grant to revamp its web site in an effort to make it more user friendly.
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