Headlines indicate that fatalities, and injuries and illnesses in the workplace are on a downward trend. Statistics for the last seven years prove this direction, yet why does it feel as though more OSHA citations are being given out? That feeling is not unfounded. The truth is more violations were cited by OSHA in the last year than any previous year. Over the past six years OSHA has more aggressively enforced safety and health practices across all general industries. There is no indication that focus will shift. In fact, the 5.9 million budget increase in 2014 on whistleblower enforcement is the largest to date. This means 47 additional whistleblower staff members will be added to help discover more violations. (Labor, 2014)
Why has OSHA increased the number of violations even though safety has improved?
OSHA was not initially designed to punish unsafe workplace practices. They were created to help maintain safety and prevent hazards which cause fatality, injury and illness. With an average of one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers, prevention is difficult for the small government entity. Starting more than a decade ago, OSHA began pushing an agenda to assess violations where most attention is needed for safety, especially in egregious situations. In a PBS Frontline interview with former head of OSHA, Charles Jeffress explains the law regarding serious repetitive violators is still not adequate.
In OSHA, when you cite someone for a violation, usually you cite them for failing to have a guard to keep someone from falling. But OSHA has a possibility of citing someone in an egregious manner. Instead of just citing them for failing to have one guard to keep you from falling, you would cite them for failing to have a guard for each worker. So instead of one citation, you might get 15 citations for the same violation. That's an egregious policy; it's only allowed where there is an egregious problem.
OSHA has been known to stack up fines when they've made repeated visits to locations, and found hazards that continue to exist at every inspection. In instances where serious injury or death has occurred after OSHA has inspected a workplace 2 - 30 times—for example, without removal of the hazards, the egregious policy comes into effect. The interview with Jeffress discusses a plant which had 32 inspections and a 60% injury rate of their employees, ultimately leading to an employee death. He further explains the egregious policy.
A serious violation, something that might lead to someone's death, carries a maximum penalty of $7,000. That's not much of a penalty. If it's a willful violation, it carries a penalty of $70,000. But if someone is killed, even $70,000 is not much of an impact on that company. This egregious policy has been tested through the courts. It has been affirmed that OSHA can do this, which is cite for each employee who is exposed to the hazard. That is the [current] way they found to try to get a bigger bang for the buck.
Have fine amounts increased?
Technically no, it's still the same general rules since 1970 that a maximum fine of $7,000 can be assessed per serious violation, and a maximum fine of $70,000 for a repeated or willful violation. Since 2009 the budget for OSHA's whistleblowing activities has slowly been increasing, even in years where their overall budget has been cut. Between July 2011 and July 2012, the number of employers placed in Severe Violators Enforcement Program (SVEP) doubled and penalties have increased for those on SVEP. If OSHA feels that an indifference or an egregious problem exists they will place an employer on this list, enterprise wide, perform comprehensive inspections and begin looking for violations to send a message to that employer that this is a serious problem.
Is the SVEP program the norm from now on?
It appears so. Until the law changes, or the structure of what OSHA is meant to do, or has the ability to do means that their agenda will continue this route of action.
How do I prepare my workplace for OSHA's increased enforcement?
- Improve Recordkeeping: OSHA has focused more energy on its recordkeeping requirements including OSHA logs, written compliance programs, and certifications. Although typically classified as other than serious violations, OSHA has been increasing the instances in which it has found recordkeeping violations to be “repeated” or “willful,” which carry with them a potential ten times penalty enhancement.
- Implement a whistleblower policy internally: Create a program that encourages employees to report instances or behaviors that are hazards or threatening. Have your HR or a designated safety team at work follow-up on reports and creates deadlines to have problems resolved.
- Job Hazard Analysis: Perform self-audits. There are a number of resources to create a program which identifies stress and hazards in the workplace. Have a team review the audit and set deadlines to fix issues.
- Safety and Visual Communication: Use labels and signs to communicate to your employees. Signs and labels can be placed throughout your facility as reminders, safety precautions, identifying hazards and for organization.
- Stay informed: Pay attention to the common violations and know how to avoid them. Download your guide to the Top Ten Violations to increase your awareness.
Citations for violations from OSHA will continue to rise. The best thing you can do to protect yourself from penalties is stay abreast of your safety communication. If OSHA feels that you are communicating safety practices with your employees and can witness this from your visual communication and recordkeeping than you are more likely not to be issued large or willful penalties.
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