OSHA in Houston: A worker's watchdog with no teeth

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In the wake of a seven-story scaffolding collapse near Minute Maid park, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration began to investigate. (KTRK)

When a seven-story scaffold along a luxury apartment building under construction near Minute Maid Park collapsed like a row of dominos last month, reports of the damage gripped the region.

Thick clouds of dust billowed after the loud collapse in the downtown Houston construction zone. Screams of concern came from neighbors and tourists watching the scaffold crumble.

"Our hearts go out to them," Father Paul Felix told abc13 at the time. He was just arriving to prepare for mass at the nearby Annunciation Catholic Church and saw the victims as well as the firefighters who rushed to save them. "I'm gonna pray for them."

Six workers were injured. Luckily, no one died.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration is investigating the accident. In the days after the collapse, OSHA released a statement saying that following OSHA rules can prevent scaffolding hazards. "All of these incidents can be controlled by compliance with OSHA standards," officials said.

But an abc13 investigation into OSHA is raising questions about the agency's track record and how safe the agency can keep Houston workplaces.

No other OSHA office is responsible for more refineries than the Houston South office. And a Forbes study showed last year that Houston was the US city with the most new construction. OSHA is somehow supposed to keep an eye on all of that -- and every other workplace -- with two dozen inspectors to cover the 26 county Houston area, stretching from the Gulf Coast to Freeport to Beaumont, north through Sabine County and over to Nacogdoches.

Indeed, OSHA has exactly 24 compliance officers to cover the entire Houston area, according to records obtained by Ted Oberg Investigates.

OSHA director David Michaels told Congress in a hearing this year that at the agency's current staffing levels, it would take his agency 140 years to inspect every job site in America.

In Texas, it's worse.

A labor union study showed it would take 155 years to inspect every Texas job site. That's because there is one OSHA inspector for every 95,000 workers statewide.

Texas also had more workplace deaths last year than any other state, with 524, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Second was California, with 334 deaths.

Ted Oberg Investigates spoke to Richard Jessup soon after last month's downtown scaffolding collapse.

He's a safety expert working with the scaffold-collapse victims to figure out what happened.

OSHA is doing the same thing, but Jessup doesn't have much confidence that the workplace watchdog will fix the problem.

"It's so hard to get in trouble for not doing it right," Jessup said. "OSHA is so understaffed it is difficult for them to get around to all the sites."

It's usually whistleblowers or accidents that bring OSHA investigators to a workplace.

"They don't come around on their own," Jessup said.

Last year, the combined Houston offices conducted 842 inspections, according to OSHA.

Are developers scared of OSHA?

"Not at all," Jessup said. In addition, "The penalty for killing somebody is not much different than cutting their arm off," he said.

OSHA officials declined an interview with abc13.

Jessup says the agency's rules and Congress' cuts have hurt OSHA's ability to keep workers safe.

"OSHA is grossly understaffed," he said.

Jessup said workers are at risk because of the few, scattered OSHA investigators.

Consider a Bay City electrician who was burned over two thirds of his body in a workplace accident in 2012.

He lost his right arm, the use of his left and is confined to a wheelchair.

abc13 agreed not to use his name out of his concern for his ongoing recovery.

OSHA didn't even investigate the accident, which isn't rare. OSHA looks into fewer than 40-percent of workplace injuries, according to Congressional testimony. The company was never fined.

Deaths have to be investigated. but even then victims say the watchdog's bite isn't very tough.

"It's ridiculous when it comes to safety," Geneva Brooks told Ted Oberg Investigates.

Brooks lost her daughter's father, Glenn White, in 2013.

White died of heat exhaustion while collecting garbage for a private trash hauler in Houston on a 99-degree day in July.

The case against the trash company is in court, but OSHA already decided the company committed serious violations. For failing to provide a safe workplace where a man died of preventable heat stroke, the garbage company was initially fined $20,000.

After company lawyers fought it, the garbage hauler paid just $7,000 for violations that led to White's death.

"It's a laughable amount," said Sean Tracey, the Brooks family lawyer. "We don't change behavior by fining people insignificant amounts of money."

OSHA said in an email to abc13 that OSHA levied companies more than $7 million in fines last year. OSHA did not provide information showing what the companies actually paid. It's likely that fined companies ultimately paid a much smaller amount.

Interviews with attorneys suggest that companies -- armed with teams of attorneys -- can chip away at big OSHA fines until the firms are paying just pennies on the dollar.

"OSHA has to move on," attorney Lance Walters said. "There are over 4000 deaths a year in Texas. They have other cases they have to worry about. When they're limited in manpower and resources there's only so much they can do."

Houston attorney Tony Buzbee has investigated workplace accidents for 15 years and that's what he's found time and time again.

"OSHA has no teeth," Buzbee said. "OSHA doesn't have sufficient personnel. It doesn't have sufficient expertise to do what it is charged to do."

In 2009, a worker was killed in a fire at Valero's Texas City refinery.

The fine for that violation? $4,500..

In 2013, a blast at a wood mill north of Livingston killed two

OSHA fined the company $14,000.

Juries gave the victims far more.

OSHA's budget has remained static over the past few years and since 2011 has cut 150 inspectors nationwide.

"I don't think it's getting better," U.S. Representative Gene Green told abc13. He said he's fighting cuts to President Obama's budget and wants to beef up OSHA funding.

"I want more cops on the beat to make sure we don't have these injuries," Green said.

Cops appear to be needed on the construction beat.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,679 workers were killed on the job in 2014. That's more than 13 deaths every day.

Geneva Brooks said her daughter, Precious, still expects calls from her dad on her birthday.

But they'll never come for the girl who was nine when her father was killed.

Brooks said Precious still doesn't understand how it happened. She wants answers, but more importantly, really wants her dad back.

"That's all she wants," Brooks said.

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Ted Oberg Investigates
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