OSHA to zero in on repeat violators
To reduce on-the-job fatalities, the government is launching an enforcement program to target repeat safety offenders and increase penalties.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced that beginning this summer it will focus its enforcement efforts on employers with previous violations, including those that fail to fix identified problems. It will also conduct follow-up investigations and inspect the other work sites of violators to find similar hazards.
OSHA has dubbed the move the “Severe Violator Enforcement Program.”
Critics of the approach say it won’t be as effective as a government/industry partnership model that has existed since the 1990s.
But E. Dale Wortham, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO and an electrician by trade, said companies with histories of violating safety laws should undergo additional scrutiny.
OSHA has been underfunded and understaffed for years, Wortham said, recalling times he’s filed complaint against employers and gotten no response.
The new program targets fall hazards including scaffolding, amputation dangers, combustible dust, silica, trenching and excavations, and shipbuilding hazards.
David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said the program “will help OSHA concentrate its efforts on those repeatedly recalcitrant employers who fail to meet their obligations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.”
Wortham is especially pleased OSHA will focus on excavation, one of the most dangerous jobs in construction. Some contractors don’t spend the time it takes to dig a hole correctly and shore up the sides, he said, and workers can suffocate when the dirt caves in.
The new focus is a departure from OSHA’s collaborative safety approach established under President Bill Clinton, said Brian Turmail, senior director of public affairs for Associated General Contractors of America in Arlington, Va., which represents 33,000 construction firms. Under that program, trade groups could partner with OSHA.
Construction contractors had time to fix problems found in a safety audit — with the idea of “let’s fix it before someone gets hurt” instead of “let’s set new records for how many fines we write this year,” Turmail said. The agency would issue fines only if the identified problems weren’t fixed.
Everyone — from craftspeople to supervisors to owners — had an incentive to fix safety problems, he said. OSHA’s new approach, he said, will discourage self-reporting of workplace safety problems.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Jerry Nevlud, president and CEO for the contractors’ chapter in Houston. He said his group has worked to build a good relationship with local OSHA officials and is worried inspectors will focus more on fines rather than correcting dangerous safety violations.
“Enforcement over collaboration is never a good thing,” said Nevlud.
One health and safety expert hopes OSHA’s new targeted enforcement program will shift more safety accountability to job site supervisors.
Many companies have good safety programs at the corporate level, said Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America in Washington. But many times, those initiatives don’t make their way down to individual job sites.
Supervisors are often rewarded for getting a job done, and safety isn’t always a top concern, he said.
As part of the initiative OSHA is rolling out, it’s increasing the overall dollar amount of fines it assesses, but will continue reducing penalties for small employers and those that act in good faith to correct workplace safety violations quickly.
Deterrence in doubt
In an evaluation of its penalties last year, OSHA found its fines too low to act as a deterrent.
The maximum penalty for a serious violation — one that can cause death or serious injury — is $7,000, but the average is about $1,000.
OSHA expects average fines of $3,000 to $4,000 under its new rules.
“OSHA enforcement and penalties are not just a reaction to workplace tragedies,” the Labor Department’s Michaels said. “They serve an important preventive function. OSHA inspections and penalties must be large enough to discourage employers from cutting corners or underfunding safety programs to save a few dollars.”
OSHA safety training article sourced from the Houston Chronicle