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Federal OSHA Officials Prepare for Active Role in Nevada OSHA Overhaul

The Federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has had its eyes on the Las Vegas Strip since last year, when a sudden increase in construction worker deaths raised questions of safety at sites like the City Center.

Instead of abating, the death toll continued to rise. From January 2008 to June 2009, 25 workers lost their lives – a price to pay for Las Vegas’ frenzied expansion.

In October, OSHA’s federal office released a condemning report on the state of construction in Nevada, including extreme deficiencies on the part of Nevada’s OSHA program.

Among the issues uncovered were unqualified safety investigators and a system that balked at leveraging harsh penalties against construction companies. The report validated what many had already concluded and others were worried about.

Following the report, federal OSHA’s acting director Jordan Barab kicked off action immediately by requesting a remedial plan for action from Nevada OSHA officials – due this month.

Additional plans are underway for Federal OSHA to set up shop in Nevada itself, with officials better able oversee corrective efforts and guide improvements to the state’s sagging standards.

Aside from personnel training and lax oversight, the federal investigation found evidence of severe problems with the business culture at Nevada’s OSHA. Citations were waived. Worker deaths went unpunished. Families were left without answers or justice.

Much of the report’s findings pointed to a culture of permissive and business-influenced oversight, though Nevada OSHA officials argued that this was not the case. While acknowledging that problems existed, state officials maintain that the office can be efficient with the proper resources.

Meanwhile, business on the Las Vegas Strip has slowed to a snail’s pace. The frenzied rush for glitz and profit hit a wall during the recession. Bankruptcy lost construction jobs and half-finished palaces now dot the landscape.

The hurried excitement that cost so many lives is now a muted question mark.

Still, the slower construction pace should give Nevada and Federal OSHA teams the opportunity to find and correct problems in a less hectic atmosphere. It should also give federal officials the chance to bring under-qualified Nevada officials up to speed.

For the families of Vegas construction workers, the sooner things change, the better.