Enforcement and Inspection

Stiffer OSHA Penalties Proposed

Key Democrats in Congress say OSHA needs stiffer civil and criminal sanctions – and more active enforcement – to safeguard the American workforce.

In yesterday’s Advisor, we told you about a congressional committee report that criticized the agency for failing to address the gross underreporting of occupational injuries and illnesses.

The declining injury and illness rates cited by top OSHA and Department of Labor (DOL) officials are nothing more than a reflection of recent changes to OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements, critics say.

But wait – there’s more.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said the workforce protections subcommittee she leads will hold a hearing this summer to investigate OSHA’s regulation of the construction industry, the Las Vegas Sun reported.

Woolsey said the building boom in Las Vegas and other major cities is “taking its toll and it’s killing or injuring our workers — all so some big buildings can get built quickly,” the Sun reported.

Woolsey was referring to the deaths of 10 workers on Las Vegas Strip construction projects over the last 18 months. Those deaths and others raise the question, “Do we need to change the regulations or do we need to make sure the regulations are being followed?” Woolsey said.

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Over in the Senate, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is examining whether regulators are adequately enforcing existing safety standards and properly punishing contractors who flout them, the Sun reported.

Kennedy and Woolsey have introduced identical bills that would increase penalties for workplace safety violations. Similar legislation has stalled in the past, but that was before the ascension to power of the Democrats, who openly take issue with the current administration’s preference for a voluntary industry approach to safety.

A report by Kennedy’s committee found that OSHA penalties pale in comparison with penalties for other regulatory violations. The maximum civil fine OSHA can impose for safety violations is $70,000, compared with maximum fines of $325,000 that the Department of Commerce can impose for violations of the South Pacific Tuna Act and $270,000 that the Environmental Protection Agency can assess for Clean Air Act violations, the Washington Business Journal reported.

“Protecting tuna fisheries is important, but so is safeguarding other workers’ lives, and we need to raise OSHA’s penalties if we hope to deter unsafe working conditions,” Kennedy said.

In addition, the report found that OSHA often reduces fines, lets others go uncollected, and rarely uses its authority to bring criminal charges against employers.

The bills sponsored by Kennedy and Woolsey would increase OSHA civil penalties and impose lengthy prison terms for the most serious offenders.

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With the prospect of significant changes to OSHA penalties and enforcement practices, it is vital that you stay on top of the latest developments so that you can keep your organization prepared.

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