Editorials

Washington job safety enforcers go over the top with $58,400 L&I fine of Tacoma Rainiers

TNT columnist Matt Driscoll dances along with Epic Sax Gorilla and Rhubarb on the roof of Cheney Stadium during the Tacoma Rainiers’ game against the Las Vegas 51s at Cheney Stadium on June 28, 2018. The performance later led to fines against the Rainiers and a much smaller one against the newspaper.
TNT columnist Matt Driscoll dances along with Epic Sax Gorilla and Rhubarb on the roof of Cheney Stadium during the Tacoma Rainiers’ game against the Las Vegas 51s at Cheney Stadium on June 28, 2018. The performance later led to fines against the Rainiers and a much smaller one against the newspaper. News Tribune file photo

Tacoma Rainiers fans are already excited for five months of competitive minor-league baseball starting with the April 9 home opener. They also can count on another season of wacky, wholesome family fun.

What they definitely shouldn’t expect this year are team employees perched 75 feet above the Cheney Stadium seats, pumping up the crowd while standing untethered on the roof. Not while those employees are dressed as a reindeer mascot and a saxophone-playing gorilla. Not while they’re accompanied by a special guest — say, a News Tribune columnist. Not under any conditions where people are in harm’s way.

The Washington Department of Labor & Industries made sure of that last month when it slapped the Rainiers organization with a whopping $58,400 in penalties.

It’s understandable that workplace health-and-safety regulators would emphasize preventing falls. The rate of people dying from a fall rose last year to one in 114, making it the third-largest cause of preventable death in the U.S. (though largely because more elderly people are falling). In a TNT letter to the editor today, an L&I spokesman explains why the agency is so serious about its fall-prevention mission.

Still, imposing such a large fine for a first-time offense was needlessly harsh, and categorizing it as a “willful” violation — the most severe penalty in L&I’’s arsenal — smacks of disproportionate treatment.

A thorough plan of education and training, from team administrators down to part-time seasonal employees, would achieve the same goal without the backlash.

L&I’s action against the Rainiers originated with a complaint from a ticket holder at a game last summer. The man was upset that three team staffers, plus TNT columnist Matt Driscoll, were cavorting unsecured on the stadium roof — a reasonable concern that should have yielded a reasonable corrective measure.

After investigating, L&I issued three citations to the Rainiers: a general violation (and zero fine) for not having a safety committee; a serious violation (and a $2,400 fine) for not having an accident-prevention program that addresses fall protection; and a willful-serious violation (and a $56,000 fine) because a fall would likely have resulted in death or disability.

That last one is a doozy; the problem is that it’s based on a subjective interpretation of indifference or intentional disregard to a hazard or rule. It would be more credible had the organization ignored previous safety warnings or accumulated a history of violations with L&I. The last action against the team, in 2013, was a $200 fine.

The Rainiers have appealed. The TNT, which was fined $2,100 for Driscoll’s rooftop performance, did not appeal.

Despite the importance of L&I’s overall mission, the agency risks adding to its reputation for overzealous enforcement and makes itself an easy target for satire.

L&I’s average penalty per serious violation for private-sector employers ranked fourth-highest among all states in 2016. Businesses will face even steeper fines this year, due to an increase in the range of sanctions authorized by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The potential maximum penalty nearly doubles in some cases.

When does L&I wield its punitive powers most prudently? When it focuses on flagrant offenders. Among the agency’s headlines in 2018, it fined a Taco Bell franchise owner nearly $120,000 for violating teen labor-and-hour regulations at multiple sites over multiple years. It fined a Seattle manufacturer more than $250,000 after investigating gruesome injuries including molten aluminum burns and finger amputations.

Clearly these actions were taken in the broad public interest, against violators cited in the past for similar issues.

Not so with the Cheney Stadium rooftop cheerleaders. After the notoriety L&I earned for its extreme penalty in this case, it should take a lesson from baseball: One-strike-you’re-out isn’t fair play.

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