For Workplace Safety Violators, Life Is Cheap

In January 2014, Brent Cameron was at work reroofing a home on an icy and steep roof in Michigan when he slipped and fell; he died of blunt head trauma. His employer did not provide a safety harness that would have prevented his death. The company was fined a grand total of $7,000.

In June 2014, Ralph Horner, a maintenance worker in a large Colorado meatpacking plant, was killed when the equipment he was working on crushed him. The equipment was found to lack the required safeguards. Though the company was found to have many serious safety violations, the total penalty was just $38,500.

In February 2015, Norbeto Romero was killed in a concrete production plant in Georgia when he became trapped in a cement silo—he was attempting to unclog the silo. The company was cited for two serious violations for failing to follow safe procedures that would have prevented his death, and fined a total of $12,600.

The maximum penalty that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency in charge of workplace safety, is allowed to fine employers for a serious violation that can cause physical harm or death is $7,000. That’s right, $7,000, even when a worker is killed. If the death is caused by a willful violation of an OSHA requirement, the maximum fine is only $70,000.

OSHA penalties are among the lowest of all the federal regulatory agencies. They are embarrassingly low. By comparison, the Federal Communications Commission can fine TV or radio stations up to $325,000 for indecent content. The Environmental Protection Agency that can impose a $270,000 penalty for violations of the Clean Air Act.

But today, OSHA is finally addressing its outdated penalties and has announced it will raise its fines for the first time in decades, thanks to the budget bill signed into law by President Obama last November. Maximum OSHA fines will increase by about 80 percent, to approximately $12,000 for a serious violation and $120,000 for a willful violation of the law.

This is the first increase in OSHA penalties in 25 years. OSHA was one of a few agencies exempt from a 1990 bill that required most other federal agencies to raise their fines to keep up with inflation.

OSHA needs higher fines to provide a more effective deterrent. With more than 4,800 workers killed on the job in 2015 and three million more seriously injured, the agency needs effective enforcement tools.

The truth is that OSHA is a small agency with limited resources. It would take OSHA more than 100 years to visit every workplace under its jurisdiction just once. Therefore, it is very important that the penalties for violating a workplace safety standard can provide employers an incentive to comply with the law and prevent work-related injuries and fatalities.

Even with today’s increase, the fines are still low in comparison to other federal agencies. But it is a step in the right direction.

Debbie Berkowitz is a senior fellow with the National Employment Law Project and formerly a senior official with OSHA. 

Read the original op-ed at The Hill.

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