Workplace safety programs run by North Carolina and South Carolina downplay serious safety problems, issue weak fines to violators and fail to properly handle whistleblower complaints, according to reports released by the federal government.
South Carolina's problems are so severe that auditors said increased federal oversight may be needed.
The audits, conducted by the U.S. Labor Department, are part of the federal government's pledge to strengthen its oversight of states that run their own workplace safety programs. About half the states - including the Carolinas - run their own programs, which the law allows as long as they are as effective as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in protecting workers.
South Carolina has the nation's lowest average penalties for workplace safety violations, noted Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA.
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"We're very concerned that with the low penalty number, they're not presenting a credible deterrent to employers around the state who cut corners on workplace safety," Barab said.
Lawmakers and officials have grown concerned in recent years over the ability of some state-run programs to protect workers.
In a 2008 investigation into workplace safety in the poultry industry, the Observer found that weak enforcement, minimal fines and declining inspections have allowed companies nationwide to ignore hazards that can kill and injure workers. The series examined injury records from 2003 to early 2007.
Federal audits conducted this year were more intensive than those done in previous years. Auditors examined case files from October 2008 to September 2009.
Both states praised their low injury and illness rates in written statements and said they work hard to protect employees.
Among the U.S. Labor Department's findings:
Both Carolinas impose weak penalties when violations are found - an average $281 per serious violation in S.C., compared with $512 in N.C. and $970 by federal OSHA.
North Carolina shaves 10 percent off fines for "cooperation," and state policy "results in lower penalties for serious violations," the report says.
South Carolina cuts fines by 60 percent in exchange for the employer's promise it will improve safe working conditions. But auditors found the state rarely checked to see if problems were fixed, and employers who got the discount were not required to take more steps than other companies to ensure safety.
Compliance officers in the Carolinas understate the severity of problems by misclassifying violations and rarely label problems as "willful" - the most serious degree.
N.C. compliance officers issued only one willful violation in 2009 "due to the belief that it would be too difficult to pass the review process," auditors said. South Carolina had five willful violations.
Auditors said of the N.C. program: "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."
Companies are hit with higher fines when they are cited for serious or willful violations.
North Carolina lets bureaucrats purge documents from case files when they are closed. Removing the documentation limits the state's ability to review a company's history and properly investigate future violations, auditors said.
South Carolina files, meanwhile, lacked narratives explaining items such as a description of the hazard and didn't have contact information for employees interviewed. The report said the files involving one fatality, for example, "did not provide a complete picture of how the accident occurred."
The federal government took both states to task for failing to properly handle cases involving workers who had complained about their employer. It criticized North Carolina for doing only phone interviews, for example.
The Observer investigation found that of the roughly 800 people a year who filed complaints under N.C.'s Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act, about 1 percent get their jobs back. The state had not taken a case to court on behalf of a worker in seven years. And investigators dismissed cases without interviewing workers. The act prohibits employers from firing or punishing workers for filing worker's compensation claims or complaining about unsafe working conditions.
The reports show little is being done in the Carolinas to deter companies from shortchanging safety, said workplace safety advocate Tom O'Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
"Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to get people's attention is with a significant dollar fine. And there just isn't an adequate deterrent from the low penalties assessed," said O'Connor, who lives in Chapel Hill.
"And if discrimination programs are not effective, then workers don't feel able to express themselves and will keep quiet if they find themselves in a dangerous situation."
The reports, released in the last two weeks, could prove troubling for South Carolina, as auditors noted "inadequate enforcement documentation and state policies that potentially render the program less effective than the federal program."
An S.C. OSHA spokesman, Jim Knight, said in a statement Thursday the state is proud of its record in occupational safety and health.
"Evaluations during the past eight years indicate that we have exceeded expectations and have an effective state program. Nothing has changed in the program, whether staffing levels or enforcement procedures, since the last evaluation in 2009," the statement said.
N.C. OSHA said in a written response it "will make adjustments that are in the best interest of North Carolina. It appears (recommendations included in the report) are procedural in nature and do not directly impact our workplace safety efforts."
The report noted some achievements for N.C. OSHA, including an increase in the number of health inspections, which are more time-consuming and complicated than safety inspections, and for reaching out to Spanish-speaking workers. Construction deaths also fell to 10 in 2009 from 17 in 2008.
The states must respond to OSHA this month.
If states don't adequately address the concerns, federal OSHA can increase its oversight - or even start proceedings to take over a state program.
"South Carolina has more problems than most of the states," Barab said. "We'll focus very carefully on their corrective action plan and their progress on addressing the problems." Staff Writer Ames Alexander contributed.