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Lawmakers consider Commerce audit request

By Paul Snyder

A union leader’s call for a statewide audit of workplace safety enforcement may fall on deaf ears if he can’t gather more evidence of violations.

Saying he wants “to try to shake Commerce up a bit,” Martin Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, is asking the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Audit to look into the state Commerce Department’s enforcement of workplace safety after Commerce cited the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie for seven asbestos-removal violations during campus projects in 2009.

Beil said more violations would have been noted, but the university pressured Commerce to downplay the complaints. He said an inspection last year resulted in more than 100 pages of violations and inadequacies on building projects, but that report was subsequently retracted.

“My real contention is that inspectors do their job, but then Commerce second guesses them,” he said. “What does that say about the legitimacy to how they enforce health and safety rules? By what right does an administrator overrule an industrial hygienist?”

But unless Beil can come up with more examples of violations, the audit committee may restrict its focus to the UW-Stout violations.

“It’s very possible that this might just result in a smaller look at UW-Stout,” said Linda Kleinschmidt, spokeswoman for state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma. “The (state Legislative Audit Bureau) creates the scope of this, and they can make it as comprehensive or limited as possible.”

Vinehout is co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Audit, which this week received a letter from Beil requesting the audit.

Commerce Spokesman Tony Hozeny said he saw Beil’s letter, but declined to comment on it or whether an audit is necessary.

But UW-Stout Spokesman Doug Mell said the university did not pressure the Legislature or Commerce to minimize complaints.

“We never once asked a legislator or staff here to call Commerce,” he said. “Our chancellor never called (Commerce Administrator) Greg Jones.”

Mell called the seven Commerce citations “one small, very isolated incident” and said it would be unusual for that to spark a state audit.

Although the letter was sent last month, Kleinschmidt said lawmakers did not review it until returning this week from the holiday recess. The request, along with 14 other state audit requests, is being considered.

Vinehout and state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, met Wednesday to discuss the request, but Kleinschmidt said no action was assigned.

Aside from anecdotal evidence about workplace safety issues from many years at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, Beil said he does not have much evidence of Commerce improperly enforcing health and safety rules.

He said he believes the problems at UW-Stout will be enough to generate statewide attention.

“I know there are several lawmakers that have had meetings with employees up there,” he said. “I know there’s interest. Is that enough to create an audit? We’ll see.”

Beil said he expects to hear from Vinehout or Barca about their decision on his request in the coming weeks.
For the moment, the request is the only one the audit committee has to investigate state health and safety enforcement.

“We haven’t heard from any other unions or anyone else about this,” Kleinschmidt said. “This request is the only thing like this we’ve seen yet.”


One comment

  1. Mr. Mell, the seven Commerce citations are not “one small, very isolated incident.” They are seven distinct violations that stem from less than half of the actual instances where poor work practices or the failure to follow established procedures and regulations during asbestos abatement projects resulted in exposures to asbestos. What these asbestos citations really demonstrate, for the 3rd time in six years, is the intentional failure of an administration to comply with OSHA regulations. The problem is systemic at stout. I wish that I were wrong, but I doubt that anyone with the power to set them straight will have the guts to do so.

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