State Tells Fed OSHA to Back Off

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Nevada OSHA, responding to criticism from the federal government, has denied any wrongdoing in its handling of an investigation that followed the deaths of two workers at the Orleans hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

The agency said it would not immediately comply with a request from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to consider changing some of its policies.

The state's response comes a month after the federal agency found "irregularities" in Nevada OSHA's conduct. Those included downgrading citations issued against Orleans owner Boyd Gaming
after several top officials in the state department got involved in the probe.

In a letter dated Aug. 22, federal OSHA Regional Administrator Ken Atha wrote to Nevada OSHA: "Taken individually, the irregularities in this case generally appear minor. When reviewed in their entirety, however, we think you will agree that the handling of this case raises some significant concerns."

The deaths occurred after maintenance worker Richard Luzier entered a manhole to fix a pipe and was overcome by toxic fumes Feb. 2, 2007. Workers Travis Koehler and David Snow tried to save him and also were overcome. Luzier and Koehler died. Snow was in critical condition before recovering.

Nevada OSHA investigators found that Boyd had been warned repeatedly about dangers in the manholes but had taken no corrective action. An inspector had intended to issue "willful" citations against Boyd. But in a last-minute move, Nevada OSHA downgraded the citations, lowered the fines and agreed to provide safety consultation and training services to Boyd. In exchange, Boyd agreed not to challenge the citations.

The negotiations included direct involvement by Mendy Elliott, who at the time was Gov. Jim Gibbons' appointed head of the Business and Industry Department, which includes Nevada OSHA. She's now his deputy chief of staff.

Nevada OSHA has consistently maintained it did nothing wrong. It reiterated that view in a letter Nevada OSHA Chief Administrative Officer Tom Czehowski sent to Atha on Tuesday.

"We find your use of the word irregularities questionable," Czehowski wrote. "In addition, we do not agree that the handling of this case raises significant concerns. A more thorough investigation by Federal OSHA personnel would have been welcome."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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