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Dispute over MIOSHA fines reaches House Oversight Committee

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A dispute between Michigan’s workplace safety agency and the City of Port Huron reached the state House Oversight Committee Thursday.

City officials said the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) wrongly cited it in 2020 for COVID-19 protocol violations.

Port Huron City Manager James Freed said the city was unfairly fined for not following COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“I had colleagues texting me like, ‘What are you doing, get your house in order.’ It was embarrassing. The local press had a front-page breaking news alert pinging people’s phones, ‘City of Port Huron violated the rules.’ It was humiliating. It was degrading to our professional reputations when we did nothing wrong,” Freed told the committee Thursday morning.

MIOSHA eventually dropped its complaint against the city during the appeals process.

But Freed argued that only happened after the state attorney general’s office stepped in and city spent an estimated $15,000-$20,000 on legal fees. That’s more than double cost of the original citation.

“Coming to Lansing to shed light on the misconduct of a state agency is pretty intimidating. We fear retaliation. A lot of small business owners probably don’t challenge it because, if you challenge MIOSHA, what will happen?” Freed said.

During questioning, state Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp) challenged the notion that MIOSHA was picking on Port Huron.

“It wasn’t a random audit. They only came to you because people from within your organization, your very valuable organization, felt for their safety and their lives,” Brixie said.

MIOSHA Director Bart Pickelman was scheduled to speak following Freed during the hearing. But the committee ran out time before he could.

In a prepared statement provided to reporters, Pickelman pointed out that the 3% of employers who faced MIOSHA fines after a COVID-19 safety investigation were welcome to an appeals process.

“The dismissal or settlement of MIOSHA citations during the appeal process is a demonstration that the process is working as intended to provide employers a fair and objective review of their citations,” Pickelman’s opening remarks read.

MIOSHA’s policy for handling notes records related to the investigation also came up during Thursday’s hearing.

Freed and some lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee asserted the agency had burned evidence related to MIOSHA’s investigation. The allegation arose from an October 2021 deposition in which an inspector said he typically burns his handwritten notes.

Pickelman’s statement said that deposition was taken out of context. He said agency policy requires all handwritten notes to be transcribed and included in the case file before being discarded.

“The implications, based on the deposition of the MIOSHA inspector in the City of Port Huron case, that MIOSHA destroyed any information, records, or evidence is FALSE," Pickelman's statement read, with his capitalization included.

"MIOSHA did not destroy any information, records, or evidence,” the statement continued.

Pickelman said the inspector's rural living situation also helped explain the burning of the handwritten notes. "Many people who live in rural areas burn some of their trash," Pickelman's statement said.

Republican House Oversight Committee leadership seized upon the claims about the Port Huron citation as a way of demonstrating deeper issues within MIOSHA’s process for handling complaints.

“You have a system where, it doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or innocent, you’re paying the fine and telling the world you are guilty. And so we want to make sure that there’s a system in place where innocent business owners, municipalities, aren’t subject to paying a fine that they’re not actually guilty of just by way of it’s cheaper to do that,” Rep. Steve Johnson (R-Wayland) said.

Johnson said he hopes to have more hearings dealing with MIOSHA investigations in the coming weeks.

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