After decade of defiance, OSHA plans to take over Arizona enforcement
Industrial Commission Building in Phoenix, Arizona

WASHINGTON—After a decade of outright Arizona defiance on everything from protecting construction workers against falls to protecting nurses against the coronavirus, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has run out of patience and is proposing the drastic step of taking over job safety and health enforcement in the state.

The record is so bad, the feds said, that “together, the state” agency’s “actions suggest Arizona is either unable or unwilling to maintain its commitment to provide a program for employee safety and health protection,” the 36-page Federal Register notice, to be formally published the week of April 24, says.

The feds “may initiate revocation proceedings if a state plan does not maintain its commitment to provide a program for employee safety and health protection that meets the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and is at least as effective as the federal OSHA program in providing employee safety and health protection at covered workplaces,” federal OSHA’s draft adds..

The announcement is already drawing cheers from the labor-backed National Council on Occupational Safety and Health and its Arizona affiliate, and, predictably, jeers from the right-wing Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee, led by notoriously anti-union Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. She called OSHA’s move “a power grab.”

Neither the state agency, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health–part of its Industrial Commission—nor Republican Gov. Doug Ducey commented on websites.

“I don’t enjoy saying this, but it’s a fact: We need the feds to step in,” said Shannon Foley, co-chair of the Worker Safety Committee at IATSE Local 415 and a volunteer with the Arizona Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. “The Arizona Industrial Commission is too cozy with industry and they are not doing enough to keep workers safe on the job.”

“This isn’t about Washington, D.C., vs. Arizona or labor vs management,” said Foley. “It’s about all of us pulling together so that every worker comes home safely at the end of every shift. We all have a right to a safe workplace, no matter what state we live in.”

Arizona’s failures are long-standing, the federal OSHA said. Indeed, the first warning signal came when the state endangered construction workers almost a decade ago. State legislators enacted SB1441, stating the state agency did not have to protect those workers against falls unless the workers toiled at least 15 feet off the ground.

OSHA’s standard, then and now, calls for fall protection for workers starting at six feet above the ground. But Arizona, at least initially, defied it. States must follow, or better, both that standard and other federal OSHA job protection standards.

OSHA threatened to take over Arizonan enforcement then, but backed off when the legislature hastily reversed course. Things only got worse after that, OSHA’s notice says.

The AFL-CIO’s latest Death on the Job report, issued last May, adds one more vital point: There are only two federal OSHA inspectors for the entire state and 19 state OSHA inspectors. That’s one inspector for every 138,516 workers. The national figure is one inspector per 82,881 workers. International Labour Organization standards for workplace safety say Arizona should have 291 inspectors, the fed’s report adds.

Among other lowlights OSHA reported in Arizona:

  • The state agency “never adopted an Emergency Temporary Standard or other comprehensive standard to protect healthcare workers from Covid-19.” It finally adopted two of the federal ETS’s eight anti-coronavirus rules, covering record-keeping and reporting, on Valentine’s Day, 2022.
  • Arizona didn’t increase fines against job safety and health lawbreakers when the feds finally did –as federal law requires–starting in in 2015. Fines have risen with inflation since then, though they’re so inadequate they don’t deter lawbreakers, DOTJ states.
  • “Arizona’s failure to adopt two important national emphasis programs” into its plans and enforcement. One, with a deadline of June 10, 2020, was to emphasize inspecting factories where amputations occurred. The other, two months later, was to force firms to reduce and eliminate the danger to workers of breathing in crystalline silica.
  • Arizona also didn’t follow the federal OSHA’s order—an order the Steelworkers won against the agency after a long court fight—to protect workers against beryllium exposure. Both beryllium and silica are cancer-causing substances.

“In addition, some (OSHA) standards the state adopted over the years were adopted long after their due dates, and, in some cases, Arizona failed to provide OSHA with the required documentation of adoption,” national OSHA said. For example, Arizona verbally told the federal agency it adopted the 2019 standard to protect construction workers in trenches, but never formally documented that.

“OSHA discussed the list of outstanding items–not adopted–during each quarterly meeting and reached out via email several times during the year to request updates,” the agency said. It never got them.

“OSHA’s decision to move forward with proposed revocation is based on its continuing evaluation of Arizona’s state plan, the history of shortcomings described above, and the numerous areas where the state plan continues to be less effective than OSHA, including on penalty levels and important emphasis programs,” the federal agency says.

What OSHA, being a non-partisan agency, could not say is that for the last 30 years, the Arizona legislature has been entirely under Republican control in both houses, except when the State Senate was tied 15-15 in 2000-2002.

Still, Republicans, beholden to the corporate class and pushed to be anti-worker by their campaign contributors, not only oppose OSHA rules—federal and state—but the very existence of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and of state job safety agencies and regulations, too.

Arizona’s attitude could change—depending on this fall’s election. Due to demographic changes, the Republican stranglehold has weakened enough that Arizona is now a “purple” state. Biden carried it and the U.S. House delegation is 5-4 Democratic. Republicans hold only a 16-14 State Senate lead and a 31-29 State House edge.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.