OSHA to Crack Down on Unsafe Workplaces

May 11, 2010

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Each year, tens of thousands die from workplace disease and more than 4.6 million workers are seriously injured on the job. In an effort to address urgent occupational safety and health problems, OSHA is implementing a new program and increasing penalties for unsafe workplaces.

Last month, the American public's consciousness was jarred by the loss of workers in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia, an oil rig explosion south of Louisiana and a refinery fire in Washington state.

"The pain brought on by each of these tragedies is beyond comparison, and we should not think of the incidents as isolated," Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement on Workers Memorial Day, on April 28. "The fact is they all involve worker safety issues, which merit national attention and point to a disturbing pattern of deadly neglect that our country can no longer tolerate."

More than 4.6 million workers suffer serious injuries each year. Tens of thousands die from workplace disease annually.

In an effort to address urgent safety and health problems facing American workers, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is implementing a new Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP) and increasing civil penalty amounts.

Last year, OSHA assembled a work group to evaluate its penalty practices. The consensus of the group was that the agency's penalties are "too low to have an adequate deterrent effect," according to a memorandum on the change. Based on the group's findings and recommendations, several administrative changes to the penalty calculation system outlined in the Field Operations Manual are being made.

The SVEP will focus the agency's enforcement resources on "recalcitrant employers who endanger workers by demonstrating indifference to their responsibilities under the law," according to a statement from OSHA. This "supplemental enforcement tool" includes increased OSHA inspections in these work sites, including mandatory follow-up inspections, and inspections of other work sites of the same employer where similar hazards and deficiencies may be present.

"SVEP replaces OSHA's Enhanced Enforcement Program. SVEP targets high-emphasis hazards, which are defined as high gravity serious violations of specific fall standards — 23 such standards are listed in general industry, construction, shipyards, marine terminal and longshoring — or standards covered in National Emphasis Programs focused on amputations, combustible dusts, crystalline silica, lead, excavation/trenching, shipbreaking and process safety management," Occupational Health & Safety explains.

The penalty changes will increase the overall dollar amount of all penalties while maintaining OSHA's policy of reducing penalties for small employers and those acting in good faith.

The average penalty for a severe violation — one that could cause death or serious injury — will increase from about $1,000 to an average of $3,000 to $4,000.

"The agency would like to increase penalties even further, but is constrained by current legal maximums of $7,000 for serious violations and $70,000 for willful violations," the Portland Business Journal says (subscription required). "Legislation pending in Congress, which OSHA favors, would increase those maximum penalties to $12,000 and $250,000, and adjust them for inflation in the future."

"Although we are making significant adjustments in our penalty policy within the tight constraints of our law, this administrative effort is no substitute for the meaningful and substantial penalty charges included in the Protecting America's Workers Act," OSHA Director David Michaels said.

Monetary penalties for violations of the OSH Act have been increased only once in the past 40 years despite inflation, Michaels recently said in testimony before the U.S. Senate. The Protecting America's Workers Act would raise these penalties, for the first time since 1990, up to OSHA's recommended range. Future penalty increases would also be tied to inflation.

In the meantime, OSHA will focus on outreach in preparation of implementing this new penalty policy.

The administrative enhancements will take effect in the next several months.


No Survivors Found After West Virginia Mine Disaster by Ian Urbina The New York Times, April 9, 2010

Oil Rig Explosion Rocks Offshore Platform by Kevin McGill The Associated Press, April 21, 2010

5 Die in Wash. Refinery Blast, Fire msnbc.com, April 3, 2010

Statement of US Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis on Workers Memorial Day U.S. Dept. of Labor, April 28, 2010

Severe Violator Enforcement Program Directive Occupational Safety and Health Administration, April 22, 2010

Memorandum: Administrative Enhancements to OSHA's Penalty Policies by David Michaels Occupational Safety and Health Administration, April 22, 2010

OSHA Announces Severe Violator Enforcement Program Occupational Health & Safety, April 22, 2010

OSHA Triples Fines for Safety Violations, Seeks Bigger Jump (subscription required) by Kent Hoover Portland Business Journal, April 30, 2010

Testimony of David Michaels ... Before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions U.S. Senate, April 27, 2010

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