After decades of speaking out against workplace hazards in this country and abroad, Garrett Brown didn't quietly fade away when he retired from his high-ranking state regulatory job in California. He came back to hound his former employer.
Brown released a blistering critique of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health just weeks after leaving the agency at the end of last year. The report is the core of a watchdog group's federal complaint trying to prod Cal/OSHA, as the agency is known, to add field inspectors and step up enforcement.
In April, Brown lodged a whistleblower claim with the state auditor. In it he accuses the department that oversees Cal/OSHA of "improperly" -- and "possibly illegally" -- misusing money that is supposed to go to his former agency. And this month Brown launched a website, Inside Cal/OSHA, to step up his criticism of what he regards as the pro-employer drift of the agency.
Brown's unconventional farewell after 20 years at Cal/OSHA, where he was a respected inspector before being named special assistant to the agency's chief, was hardly out of character. Brown, 61, has been both a crusader and a button-down career bureaucrat. After starting out as an activist, he came to the agency willing to work for change within the system. Yet over the years he riled his own bosses by publicly calling for more staff, arguing that the state has more fish and game wardens than job safety inspectors.
Long before arriving at Cal/OSHA, Brown was drawn to the plight of industrial workers. In his 20s, Brown was a union factory laborer and forklift driver for four years -- a period when he also was a member of the Socialist Worker Party and tried to organize workers around health and safety issues, before quitting the party in 1983.
Brown, the son of a successful advertising sales executive for Time Inc., grew up in wealthy suburbs of New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Born in 1952, the first of five children, Brown was the "goody two-shoes of the family," he said in an interview in his tidy home in El Cerrito, where he lives with his spouse, Myrna Santiago, the chair of the history department at Saint Mary's College.
After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1976 and then trying factory work, Brown decided that he wanted to observe social change up close and headed to a Spanish-language school in northern Nicaragua, in a stronghold of the leftist Sandinista movement. When Ben Linder, an idealistic young American engineer working on a hydroelectric project in Nicaragua, was killed in 1987 by the Contra rebels fighting against the Sandinista revolution, Brown was motivated to learn technical skills to carry on in Linder's spirit.
That took him to a graduate program at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, where Brown received his master's degree in industrial hygiene in 1991.
Two years later, Brown arrived at Cal/OSHA, where over his career he took satisfaction in pursuing some of the agency's toughest cases.
One example came in 2006, when Brown investigated injuries to pile drivers rebuilding the eastern span of the Bay Bridge. KFM, a consortium led by Kiewit Construction Co., claimed an excellent safety record. But Brown determined that workers were pressured to remain silent about injuries. As Brown recounted in an article he co-wrote on the case, the bosses for years slipped crisp, new $100 bills into the pay envelopes of crew members who reported no injuries.
Brown, however, identified at least 13 serious unrecorded injuries, including sickness from welding fumes and a head injury from a fall off a flatbed truck. The employer was able to get the citation downgraded, and it paid a fine of $5,790.
Even though charges often are reduced and fines modest, Brown said, he felt that his work paid off in this and other cases. "I had an opportunity to identify hazards and get them fixed, so people wouldn't get injured or killed," he said.
Berkeley lawyer Ellen Widess, who as Cal/OSHA chief from 2011 to 2013 made Brown her special assistant, praises his work. He was, she said, "one of the finest inspectors that Cal/OSHA has ever had" and she lauded his "fearlessness in telling it like it is."
But attorney Fred Walter, who defends employers charged with Cal/OSHA violations, gives Brown a mixed assessment. "Garrett's investigations are the most thorough, the most professional of anyone I have worked with at Cal/OSHA. When he writes an investigation report, it's airtight," Walter said.
At the same time, Walter said, "He is so focused and so passionate about worker safety that he sometimes misses the bigger picture. He will not credit the employer for doing everything an employer can reasonably do to prevent accidents and illness. He will find a way to place liability on the employers."
When Widess was forced out of her job in September, Brown regarded it as emblematic of backpedaling by the Department of Industrial Relations, Cal/OSHA's parent agency, and he decided to take early retirement.
But Brown soon came out with his report arguing that Cal/OSHA had been put on a "starvation diet" by California Gov. Jerry Brown and Christine Baker, director of the Department of Industrial Relations. By his count, the agency had 170 field inspectors as of the end of 2013 -- one for every 109,000 workers.
Brown's report was the basis of a complaint that the watchdog group PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, filed in February with federal authorities. The complaint, which remains under investigation, said the state has one of the nation's worst inspector-to-worker ratios. "California leads the nation in many areas but worker safety, unfortunately, is not one," said Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.
Baker and other Department of Industrial Relations officials disputed Brown's argument that Cal/OSHA has fallen short in protecting workers, and cited as evidence figures showing decreases in California workplace injuries and fatalities from 2003 to 2013. They also noted that the new state budget calls for increased staffing that would bring the number of field inspectors to 204.
In the whistleblower claim Brown filed in April, which also remains under investigation, Brown accuses the Department of Industrial Relations of sitting on, or diverting, Cal/OSHA money. He said the department failed to use a surplus in the Elevator Safety Fund for inspections even though more than one-third of the state's elevators operate under expired permits and await examinations.
In an email, the department didn't deny the assertion about the elevator fund, saying its "understanding of the extent of the current backlog and the emergence of the current surplus in the Elevator (Safety) Fund are relatively recent developments." It said Cal/OSHA now has been directed to resolve the problem.
But Brown isn't swayed by the Department of Industrial Relations' arguments, and he isn't counting on getting any major help from other powers that be in Sacramento. "Occupational safety and health has almost no friends," Brown said.
A longer version of this story appears on FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit news organization focused on public health, safety and environmental issues.