Former MNOSHA inspectors testify that Minnesota DOLI alters reports, citations

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On Wednesday, Feb. 25, a “very disturbing” hearing took place in the Minnesota Senate’s Economic Development and Housing Budget Division committee chaired by Senator Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.

In the nearly two-hour hearing, two former Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors testified that the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry has engaged in a number of fraudulent activities. Among the charges brought by the whistle-blowers are:

• Changes have been made to final OSHA inspection reports even after the OSHA inspector has signed the report;

• Documents have been removed from inspection files:

• Inspectors have been pressured to not find violations against MNSTAR companies or issue citations to them.

The former inspectors are members of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. Terry Swanson is from Babbitt and Douglas Crosby is from Bemidji. They have stated that they were forced to quit their jobs last year after filing separate whistleblower lawsuits the year before. The OSHA practices and violations have allegedly gone on at least since 2006.

Another point of view: Workers’ compensation oversight could be improved
by Staff, Session Daily

A report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor finds that Minnesota’s workers’ compensation system works well overall, but still has room for improvement.

Legislative Auditor James Nobles presented the report, “Oversight of Workers’ Compensation,” to members of the House Bioscience and Workforce Development Policy and Oversight Division. No action was taken. (Watch the meeting.)

Deborah Parker Junod, who managed the audit, outlined the report’s major findings, which indicate shortcomings in several areas, including:

• staff cuts have harmed the Department of Labor and Industry’s ability to enforce workers’ compensation laws;

• the department does an inadequate job of tracking reimbursements from uninsured employers; and

• the state’s dispute resolution process is overly complex.

The report recommends improved information technology systems, more aggressive pursuit of reimbursements from uninsured employers and establishment by the Legislature of an ombudsman for workers’ compensation, among other changes.

Commissioner Steve Sviggum, whose department manages the state’s workers’ compensation system, said the department is in “complete harmony” with the OLA findings, and will work to implement the recommended changes.

“We held the hearing because if the allegations are true that documents were altered from what field employees submitted, we have a serious problem,” said Tomassoni. “Because of the whistle blower lawsuits being in court, we probably didn’t get everything they could have said.”

Tomassoni said what has to be straightened out is if there is an MO (modus operandi) at OSHA to make inspections look different than they actually were. He said both former inspectors had similar stories to tell and both got treated the same way for coming forward. He said he thought they were both transferred out of their inspection assignments, relocated to other parts of the state and eventually quit their jobs.

Bill Heaney, Legislative and Political Director for the IBEW Minnesota State Council, attended the hearing and called it “very disturbing . . . The possibility of the allegations occurring would bring into question altering and falsifying documents, signed reports, signed investigations of accidents including fatalities, removing documents from official files, and more.”

Heaney said it is important to separate the whistle blower lawsuits from the former inspectors’ allegations about Minnesota OSHA and DOLI.

“But the reason they quit was on account of all those bad things,” Heaney said.

MNSTAR is a MNOSHA program that recognizes companies where labor-management committees work together on health and safety concerns that go beyond OSHA compliance standards. Minnesota Power was recently recertified for the eighth year. It is the only multi-work location business in the state with MNSTAR certification. Minnesota Power was brought up in the Feb. 25 hearing, but has a five-year “excellent” safety record at its 28 locations. One of the whistleblowers said Minnesota Power case files are missing.

Other regional MNSTAR companies include Boise Cascade and Specialty Minerals in International Falls, Verso Paper in Sartell, Marvin Windows and Doors in Warroad, Ainsworth Engineered and Potlatch, both in Bemidji, Louisiana-Pacific in Two Harbors and Liberty Paper in Becker.

If OSHA violations have been altered and citations rescinded, constitutional due process rights for written discovery for documentation or recovery would have been circumvented.

No record exists of a MNOSHA or DOLI investigation of the charges filed by the whistleblowers. Implicated management personnel including Patricia Todd, assistant commissioner for DOLI who oversees MNOSHA, and Jeffrey Isakson, who was MNOSHA director at the time, were never placed on administrative leave, which is common practice in law enforcement rules. They have admitted in depositions to removing case files from the federal IMIS record retention system that can be accessed by the states.

Crosby’s whistleblower lawsuit not only sues the State of Minnesota, it sues Todd and Isakson, who is now an area supervisor in the Duluth office, for violating the inspector’s First Amendment due process rights.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office is defending the state and Todd and Isakson in the whistleblower lawsuits.

Other than conducting a hearing, Tomassoni said there isn’t much more his committee can do. If the whistle blower lawsuits aren’t successful, that may be the end of the investigation, he said.

“But even if the courts decide nothing was done wrong, there is the question of where are the original OSHA reports,” Tomassoni said.

Heaney said if DOLI has engaged in the alleged activity to protect business over workers, that culture could have a long history. DOLI commissioners are appointed by the governor and the last labor-friendly governor in the state was Rudy Perpich, who left office Jan. 7, 1991.

Current Commissioner Steve Sviggum, an appointee of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has an anti-labor history dating back to when he was a Republican Speaker of the House. He had a 28 percent AFL-CIO voting record until his appointment to DOLI in 2006. Sviggum crafted onerous workers compensation changes in the 1990s that added to the misery of injured workers. Just last month he proposed major changes to workers’ comp law to create incentives for injured workers to waive their legal rights and to cut coverage to undocumented immigrants, many of them working in the most dangerous occupations.

“There were discussions in the hearing that the allegations may be criminal,” said Heaney. “If they’re not criminal as they concern the law, they’re criminal as they pertain to the health and safety of workers.”

Larry Sillanpa edits the Labor World, the official publication of the Duluth Central Body, AFL-CIO. Visit the Labor World website, www.laborworld.org

For more information
Audio of the hearing is available on the Legislature’s website, www.leg.state.mn.us Click on the tab for “Senate,” then “Audio and Video Archives” in the left sidebar. Look for the Wednesday, Feb. 25, meeting of the Finance Committee, Economic Development and Housing Budget Division

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