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US agency mulls yanking Arizona’s work safety oversight

April 20, 2022 GMT

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona may lose the authority to oversee its own workplace safety program because of a pattern of ignoring federal directives involving COVID-19 protection, employer penalties and other issues, the Biden administration said Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is threatening to take the first step in revoking federal approval of Arizona’s plan for monitoring and protecting private, local and state employees.

Assistant U.S. Labor Secretary Doug Parker, who leads the agency, said a Federal Register notice proposing that Arizona’s approval be reconsidered will be published Thursday. The notice opens up a 35-day public comment period. The state could request a hearing at that time. After that, OSHA would issue a final decision.

“OSHA is asking Arizona OSHA to address the litany of issues that the agency has identified over the past decade,” Parker told reporters in a conference call. “And I just want to be clear, this isn’t about a single instance.

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The Industrial Commission of Arizona, Arizona’s agency, said it disagreed with the federal decision.

“Arizona has always, and will continue to, implement occupational safety and health standards in accordance with our mutually agreed upon State Plan and Arizona law.,” the agency said in a statement.

“The reconsideration of Arizona’s State Plan status is a serious overreaction by OSHA,” the statement continued. “Despite this distraction, the Industrial Commission of Arizona remains committed to protecting Arizona’s workforce and will continue to uphold Arizona’s State Plan.”

OSHA notes that Arizona is the only state that refused to implement a temporary emergency standard related to COVID-19 last June, according to OSHA. The standard included ensuring there was enough personal protective gear for health care workers, room for 6 feet (2 meters) of social distancing and other mitigation measures. Agency officials say they worked “in good faith” and warned the Arizona regulators in October about the potential loss of approval.

At the time, Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, called revocation talk “nothing short of a political stunt and desperate power grab.”

After OSHA warned Arizona in October, the commission issued a fiery news release in November that it had the sole authority to issue such rules.

The Industrial Commission said OSHA officials also took two months to tell the state that its existing wage and hour laws were not sufficient.

Parker declined to comment on those criticisms but said people should give input “based on the facts.”

“If they raise substantial objections, we’ll hold a hearing,” Parker said.

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The state has long been in the crosshairs of the federal agency, with repeated warnings over its reported failure to issue adequate maximum fines for worker injuries and deaths. The agency, during former President Donald Trump’s presidenc y, warned Arizona about lowering fines issued to employers and “operating outside its legal authority by reclassifying violations.”

The Biden administration has been at odds with other Republican-controlled states like Utah and South Carolina the past several months. Safety measures for workers at health facilities that care for people with COVID-19 and paid sick time for those who contract the virus or need to get vaccinated were points of contention last year.

OSHA has given up its authority to enforce workplace safety laws and regulations for the private sector in 22 states, including Arizona. In exchange, the states must adopt rules that are as effective or better than the federal regulations at protecting workers. Arizona’s plan has been in place since the 1980s.

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Associated Press reporter Bob Christie contributed.