State regulators and local hazardous materials inspection officials are looking to change the way they inspect thousands of businesses in Los Angeles County and throughout the state.

Rather than the current requirement to inspect each business once a year or once every three years, they want to focus more on those businesses and industries with a history of health and safety violations and less on businesses in lower risk industries with good records.

"We treat everybody in the same way right now, whether they are a high-risk metal plating facility or a lower-risk print shop. That's not the best use of our resources," said William Jones, chief of the health and hazardous materials division of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "We are looking at our regulated community and trying to come up with a way to focus on where the problems are."

Jones is co-chairman of a task force of local fire and health officials and regulators with the California Environmental Protection Agency that is leading this proposed inspection revamp.

The push for this reform effort came after Jones' department led a multiyear effort to uncover hazardous materials in the Jewelry Mart in downtown Los Angeles several years back. "That was extremely worthwhile, but in doing that, we were not able to inspect other businesses as required and we got dinged by the state for that," he said.

Jones noted that there are roughly 25,000 businesses in L.A. County that require inspections at least once every three years.

Earlier this month, the task force released a preliminary set of recommendations that would give higher inspection priority to "industrial sectors with serious compliance problems," while giving lower priority to those businesses and industries "using the latest state-of-the-art technology and a demonstrated history of good compliance."

Those facilities in the latter group would most likely be required to self-report their compliance with hazardous materials regulations and be subject to spot checks, Jones said.

The recommendations will be finalized later this year and then put into a bill package to take to the state Legislature next year, he said.

The task force's recommendations are being greeted with optimism by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association.

"We are positive about this proposal. It looks like it could decrease the large amount of regulatory inspections of manufacturers that are good actors and are routinely in compliance," said Gino diCaro, spokesman for the association. "That's a lot of wasted paperwork and time and energy when we really need to focus on manufacturers that are the bad actors."

But opposition is expected from environmental groups. They have been the strongest proponents of routine inspections as a deterrent and have traditionally opposed self-reporting as inadequate.

Anticipating this opposition, Jones stressed that every facility that's regulated now "will continue to be regulated, just maybe in a different fashion."

"Also, this could free up some resources to go after some industries that we haven't inspected at all," he added.

Green Chemicals

On a related matter, the California Environmental Protection Agency is looking at an even more sweeping overhaul involving the use of chemicals in the workplace.

On May 1, Cal-EPA Secretary Linda Adams unveiled the "Green Chemistry Initiative," designed to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process instead of the current method of limiting emissions or discharges at the back end.

"The Green Chemistry Initiative will provide recommendations for developing a consistent means for evaluating risk, reducing exposure, encouraging less toxic industrial processes and identifying safer, non-chemical alternatives," Adams wrote in the May 1 memo outlining the initiative.

Adams characterized the current regulatory system as "product by product, chemical by chemical and even city by city approaches that can often have unintended, even regrettable consequences." Cal-EPA officials said this initiative is still in its preliminary phase and is years away from actual implementation. But it's already caught the attention of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, which has resisted most attempts to regulate chemicals.

Enterprise Zone Regs

Yet another state program is getting a revamp: This time it's the way the state administers enterprise zones and the impact will be felt by both employers and employees in the next few weeks.

The state enterprise zone program allows companies moving to specially designated zones to receive substantial tax credits for hiring people who live within the zone. Thanks to state legislation last year in response to abuses in the way enterprise zone hiring tax credits have been handed out, the system has been standardized.

"Before, each zone was given general indications on the documentation needed from businesses to receive hiring tax credits," said Frank Luera, chief administrator of the state's enterprise zone program. "Now, there are consistent standards."

Luera said each facility applying for hiring tax credits must verify its location within the zone and determine which of 14 categories employees fit into to qualify for the hiring tax credits. These range from being ex-convicts to being economically disadvantaged or previously unemployed.

The location requirement is key, Luera said, because employers often played fast-and-loose with geography with the old system. For example, businesses in the Antelope Valley that were rejected by officials in the Los Angeles Enterprise Zone turned to Oakland's zone, which was much more liberal in granting hiring credits. This "cross-vouchering" has largely been eliminated under the new regulations; only in rare instances is it permitted.

Staff reporter Howard Fine can be reached at (323) 549-5225, ext. 227 or at .

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