- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Indiana’s workplace safety agency mishandled complaints, put its inspectors under strict time constraints and did not lend proper help to whistleblowers trying to expose hazardous job conditions, a federal report released Wednesday says.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration report makes 22 recommendations for improvement at its state counterpart, the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A spokesman for the state agency said it has completed action on all but two of the recommendations.

OSHA found allegations about how Indiana was running its workplace safety program so “sensitive” that it launched an investigation last year without asking the state to do its own analysis first, Regional OSHA Administrator Nick Walters wrote in a Feb. 25 letter to Indiana Labor Commissioner Rick Ruble detailing the federal findings.

Walters asked Ruble to respond within 30 days.

The Indianapolis Business Journal, which first reported the OSHA findings, said IOSHA came under scrutiny last year after The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette found the agency inspected fewer than a third of the businesses it did in the 1980s, issued fines for serious violations that average less than half the national rate, and issued violations at a lower rate than the national average the last decade.

OSHA investigators from Chicago and Cleveland reviewed 60 enforcement and 25 discrimination case files and interviewed inspectors, supervisors and other staff.

OSHA’s report said the state appeared negligent in not immediately inspecting an Indianapolis Power & Light plant after a March 2013 dust explosion. A state compliance officer told superiors it represented a potential “imminent danger.”

“Although no employees were injured, OSHA believes this is an issue/hazard that should have been inspected,” Walters wrote.

OSHA found the state agency did not follow federal guideline for handling whistleblower complaints, and it recommended eliminating a 60-day deadline to complete investigations. Lawyers for the companies targeted in complaints are well aware of the 60-say deadline and “often informed investigators that these restrictions are not their problem and were less than cooperative,” OSHA found.

OSHA also found that state job-performance measures hamstrung its inspectors.

Indiana Department of Labor spokesman Bob Dittmer said “all recommendations outlined in the report apply to administrative procedures, and they have no effect on the health and safety of Hoosiers.” He said the state agency “has completed action on all but two of the 22 recommendations in the report, and those are nearing completion.”

IOSHA and Indiana Department of Labor personnel were completely open and cooperative, and most of the problems discovered already had been identified internally and were being addressed,” Dittmer said.

John Newquist, a former OSHA assistant regional administrator whose responsibilities included overseeing state OSHA plans, told The Indianapolis Star the report was “scathing.”

“This is as harsh as it gets,” he said. “If people are afraid to complain, you’re asking for accidents at their facility.”

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