The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA, is so understaffed the agency is challenged to fulfill its mission, federal OSHA said in its annual monitoring and evaluation report of the state agency.

Besides understaffing, federal auditors described as “major issues” a low rate of serious violations and long citation lapse time, which is the period between the start of an inspection and issuance of a citation.  The critique covered the 2013 fiscal year.

“The lack of staffing affects the citation lapse time, the number of inspections conducted, and the response time to complaints,” federal officials said. “In particular, the number of inspections conducted by the current Cal/OSHA staff is well below the federal average. To compound this problem, there has been a steady decrease in inspectors since FY 2011.”

The report also said California’s rate of serious, willful or repeat violations had fallen significantly below the federal average, suggesting Cal/OSHA’s “limited resources are not being applied most efficiently and effectively.” Contributing factors likely included targeting low hazard industries and inappropriately coding non-enforcement activities as inspections, auditors said.

Problems also were seen in the state’s program to protect whistleblowers from retaliation for lodging workplace health and safety complaints. Documentation of such cases was “often not adequate,” and in four of 19 cases auditors examined, the conclusion investigators drew was not supported by the evidence.

In an August 7 letter to OSHA’s Region 9 Manager, Christine Baker, Director of the California Department of Industrial Relations, the agency in charge of Cal/OSHA, agreed with OSHA’s concerns regarding staffing levels and enforcement inspections. Baker said a new leadership team at Cal/OSHA since September 2013 was working actively “to restore and strengthen” it in key areas. Cal/OSHA’s FY 2014 budget includes funds to fill 27 previously unfunded positions, she said. In addition, an infusion of $5.7 million in new money will bring 15 new hires to Cal/OSHA’s process safety management unit.

As for enforcement inspections, “We have initiated processes to increase the timeliness, volume, and quality of our inspections,” Baker said. She listed several “ongoing efforts” then added that the state “will also work with OSHA to document our high hazard targeting methods and create a plan for evaluating effectiveness.”