Cal/OSHA Chief Suddenly Resigns

After a little more than 2 years as the head of Cal/OSHA, Ellen Widess has resigned partway through her current term. This abrupt announcement occurred just after Widess returned from vacation. There’s no information forthcoming about whether the resignation was voluntary or requested. While it took some workers’ rights groups by surprise, many employers are reportedly pleased at the change in leadership. A new chief has not yet been appointed by the Governor. In the meanwhile, Juliann Sum will take over these responsibilities in addition to her role as special advisor to DIR Director Christine Baker.

Why Did Employers Have Issues with Widess?

The sentiments expressed by employer groups about the former DOSH chief tend to focus on her stern and aggressive enforcement policies. Widess came into office shortly after the amendment of AB 2774 which greatly relaxed the definition of a serious violation with its attendant citations and penalties. Now, DOSH must only show there is a ‘reasonable possibility’ rather than a ‘substantial probability’ that serious injury or death could occur in order to issue citations for serious violations. This lower burden of proof changes how cases are handled on appeal and makes it easier for Cal/OSHA to win in adjudication.

Some feel that Widess had a tendency to wield too much stick to punish employers without offering enough carrots to help businesses achieve compliance. Widess was also blamed for attempting to reduce participation in the Voluntary Protection Programs that help California construction companies that undergo a rigorous evaluation process avoid general OSHA inspections.

It’s Not Easy Being Chief

In Widess’ defense, she did serve during a period of substantial turmoil with many experienced inspectors leaving and budget woes making it difficult to keep the agency operating effectively. Ramping up the penalties and removing employer protections may have seemed like a good way to help the struggling agency get back on its feet. However, when an atmosphere of fear prevails, employers are less likely to seek preventive advice from OSHA or respond transparently to pre-citation notice letters. They are afraid of being further penalized for less-than-perfect workplace safety.

How Things May Change

A more business-friendly atmosphere may prevail with Widess out of the picture. Inspections may focus more on preventing and correcting problems than on maximizing fines. Employers will do well to take advantage of this time to bring their workplaces up to Cal/OSHA standards.