Washington Update

Washington Update: No fines for 'minor' OSHA violations?

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Should employers face fines for “minor, trivial” OSHA violations? At least one congresswoman is saying no.

Under legislation introduced April 22 by Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), employers would not be subject to monetary fines for other-than-serious violations discovered by OSHA if those violations are abated within a certain period of time.

Hartzler, in a press release, characterized some other-than-serious violations as “bizarre” – for example, cords outside a conduit, a yellow line not painted in the right spot or an emergency eyewash station’s water being too cold.

The bill “adds a level of common sense that provides regulatory relief for business[es] concerned with being nickeled and dimed with small infractions while maintaining the current strong worker safety provisions in the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” a spokesperson for the representative said in an email to Safety+Health.

The legislation would afford employers an opportunity to correct minor infractions and protect themselves from penalties that could add up to as much as $7,000. The spokesperson stressed that the bill applies only to “non-serious infractions,” and employers would still face penalties for willful, repeat or serious violations.

Safety advocate reactions

Some safety advocates are questioning the motivation behind the congresswoman’s proposal.

Celeste Monforton, a professorial lecturer in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University, described the legislation as a “Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card.” Monforton said the bill minimizes the importance of safety and health regulations, and the examples Hartzler provided could be classified as serious. For instance, an employee could be injured if an eyewash station is not set up properly, and a painted warning line near a ledge could prevent a serious injury from a fall.

Other-than-serious violations are more along the lines of failing to display a labor poster or not signing off on an injury and illness log – scenarios in which no one is likely to be hurt. In addition, Monforton said, Hartzler may be exaggerating the true penalty amounts employers receive for other-than-serious violations: The maximum fine is $7,000, but the average penalty is $422.

If OSHA’s ability to issue fines for penalties is taken away – even for low-fined, other-than-serious violations – it minimizes the importance of regulations and sends the message that a whole class of laws is not going to be enforced, Monforton claims. She added that employers have a responsibility to comply with regulations, even if they consider them “minor,” and should face a penalty for violating the law.

“We have an enforcement program. They’re supposed to follow the law and know what the law is,” Monforton said.

The bill also overlooks the fact that employers, in some sense, already have a pass on paying fines, according to Mary Vogel, executive director at the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Speaking during an unrelated National COSH press conference, Vogel noted that, under the current law, employers in most cases don’t have to abate the violation or pay the associated penalty if they are contesting the violation.

During the press conference, Peter Dooley, a safety and health consultant for National COSH, asserted that Hartzler’s bill ignores a bigger problem: It’s not that employers are facing penalties too large, but penalties for violations in general are too small.

“To pay $5,000 and $6,000 for a workplace fatality is a travesty of justice,” he said. “That’s the bigger problem.”

National COSH and other worker advocacy organizations have been pushing legislators to update the OSH Act to increase statutory limits for OSHA fines. One bill, the Protecting America’s Workers Act (S. 1112), would do just that. But as Democratic-sponsored legislation, PAWA faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Both PAWA and Hartzler’s bill have been referred to committee, and no other action had been taken at press time.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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