While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration handed out its third largest fine in history, outside critics and an internal whistleblower are calling for more stringent regulations and for the agency to better police its own workers.

The Imperial Sugar explosion in February, which killed 13 workers, put OSHA in the spotlight. While OSHA announced an $8.7 million fine on Friday, Imperial Sugar said that it met OSHA regulations and will fight the fine, according to an article in the New York Times.

Critics, on the other hand, want OSHA to tighten rules and ramp up oversight. Safety violations are often grouped into the agency’s “general duty” clause, allowing inspectors to cite companies for unsafe practices that are not specifically regulated.

So while there were 44 violations issued for spark-producing electrical equipment, which is regulated, under the general duty clause there were only two, one at each plant, for faulty ventilation and two for failing to maintain dust collection systems.

“It’s basically an admission that their standards have gaps,” Mr. [Eric] Frumin said.

For example, many safety violations aren’t on OSHA’s list of regulations, so inspectors have to cite them as general violations.

Large explosions and other tragedies briefly spotlight draw attention to workplace safety. But job-related health issues, as opposed to accidents, account for 80 percent of all workplace problems, Adam Finkel, OSHA’s former director of health standards, notes.

In 2002, Finkel leaked documents showing that OSHA was not testing its own inspectors for beryllium exposure. Finkel was transferred to a non-supervisor position within OSHA later that year. OSHA did not start testing inspectors until 2004. A year ago, a federal judge ordered OSHA to release the inspection data after Finkel filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Alternet reports:

The results were “a big eye-opener” for Finkel. Of OSHA’s 989 inspectors in March 2005, 271 were tested, and 10 – or 3.7 percent ¬– were confirmed positive for sensitization. Based on information from Newman, the beryllium expert, Finkel had expected only 1 to 2 percent would be positive. As of March 2008, the numbers had increased only slightly, to 11 confirmed positives out of 301 tests.

What do those results mean for the hundreds of other OSHA inspectors — not to mention 1,000 or more retirees? “I don’t know if it’s the tip of the iceberg or the whole iceberg,” Finkel says. So he went back into the ring with OSHA, filing a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how much beryllium the inspectors were exposed to. Then he went a step further, requesting records from all inspections where OSHA took samples for air contaminants.

>>Learn more about whistleblowers in the CIR and Salon report The War on Whistleblowers.

Lisa Pickoff-White

Lisa is a multimedia producer for California Watch. Before that, she was a print, multimedia and radio reporter in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, National Journal, KALX, Bay Guardian and UPI. She recently graduated from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with an emphasis in new media.

E-mail: lpickoffwhite@californiawatch.org