Congress mulls tougher penalties for workplace safety lapses


Congress and safety officials are considering  increased fines and even jail time for owners in an effort to increase workplace safety. But some business leaders say stiffer fines won’t reduce accidents.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has introduced legislation that seeks to increase fines and criminal penalties for safety violations. Reid’s bill parallels one introduced in the House.

If the bill is passed:

  • Fines for willful and repeat violations would increase, with the minimum increasing from $5,000 to $8,000 and the maximum from $70,000 to $120,000.
  • The maximum fine for serious, failure-to-abate and other-than-serious violations would increase from $7,000 to $12,000.
  • If a violation causes an employee’s death, civil penalties could range from $50,000 to $250,000, with $25,000 the minimum for companies with 25 or fewer workers, and
  • The federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration could also pursue criminal charges against a company for an employee’s death, including fines and up to 10 years in prison for owners and managers. Criminal penalties for serious bodily injury to an employee could include up to 5 years in prison.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s OSHA administrator, Michael Wood, is considering raising fines for safety violations and basing them on a sliding scale by number of employees.

Oregon made the news recently for workplace safety when it fined ConAgra $65,000 in connection with a February incident in which a welder was killed in a potato processing plant.

Wood says he realizes a $65,000 fine won’t have a great effect on a giant company such as ConAgra.

Oregon business leaders interviewed by the Daily Journal of Commerce agree that high OSHA fines won’t make companies any safer.

“Money is not the motivator,” said Dan Kavanaugh, vice president of Turner Construction Co. “A fine doesn’t mean anything to us.”

Do you think higher OSHA fines would cause companies to improve their safety? Let us know in the Comments Box below.

0 thoughts on “Congress mulls tougher penalties for workplace safety lapses”

  1. It will never get totally “fixed” until there are penalties on the workers as well. The legislation currently in place requires companies to provide and maintain a safe workplace. No more is needed but enforcement may need to increase on companies not meeting their current obligations. OSHA measures currently in place should provide data to focus enforcement on those with problems.

    Most accidents (by volume) are not company controlled but are worker controlled. We have an excellent safety record and program and everyone really cares about safety in our culture. Motivation to be careful, address any issue that may arise or be noticed and to stay alert is the only “fix” for safety. That can not be legislated. Perhaps the exposure to personal penalty would help reinforce the individual’s responsibility in this equation and help prevent to lapses of attention by the individual.

  2. In my more than 40 years of commercial private sector work, I have found two factors that cause most accidents. The first is employees that just won’t follow the rules, and do dumb things when they are not being watched, and the other is the increasing pressure by the project owner to cut costs. The reasoning goes: why pay for a manlift for a days work, when you might be able to stretch and use a ladder. In Church construction and others where the owners stay really involved, this is a continual battle. In spite of all this our safety record is excellent. More laws and higher fines will not effect the industry as a whole.

  3. As the safety director and a construction superintendent for a small company, I can relate to economic pressure to control cost on the job site and still maintain a safe work site. Increasing the fines on companies will not have a positive effect, nor would fining individual employees. But increasing OSHA’s education programs for the smaller companies would be more beneficial. That would go much futher in decreasing injury on the job site, as well at the home. Before the rank & file employees ever buy in to any safety program the top, middle and bottom management have to believe it is in their benifit. Fear of being fined may not be the best way to induce corperations to change their ways of doing bussiness. making money is what motivates both large & small. by providing tangable benifits in a real safety program that might be a better incetive.

  4. Jared Bringhurst

    I don’t believe higher OSHA fines will create a safer work environment. The motivation to improve or refine safety practices will need to come from within or in some cases could be driven by the incentive to decrease worker’s compensation premiums and property/casualty premiums, through improved TRIR or recognized safety programs. We’ve realized some of those benefits by certifying our plant as a SHARP certified operation through OSHA, however our true motive for pursuing and achieving the award or recognition was to realistically have and maintain a safe work environment for our entire team.

  5. The whole idea of stiffer fines is just another way for our government to stick it to the little guy. I feel OSHA would be more successful, if the goal is truly to lower incident rates, to partner with business and help them to achieve what should be a common goal, that of protecting workers. OSHA purposely makes the standards difficult to understand. And in order to get any assistance, you have to make the call. They want you to believe that OSHA Consultation does not communicate and work in cohoots with OSHA Enforcement but many of us in the real world truly don’t believe that. It’s like inviting the wolf to the dinner table. If OSHA was serious about lowering rates they would “offer” their assistance to companies to accomplish their goal. And not hold it against them. It’s called partnership. They should be less worried about making the buck and more concerned with helping to provide workers a safe work environment. But, this is our President’s plan to pay for what he wants done. Stick it to small business. By the way, 70% of all employed in this country work for small businesses, those with less than 500 employees. You would think that those are the type of businesses that this administration would want to see prosper.

  6. Fines may not mean much to larger companies, but unlike the comment from Dan Kavanaugh, money is a motivator. We all like to think that we are altruistic, and we do care about our employees, but money is a motivator. We are all in business to make money and accidents cost money and a poor incident rate means higher insurance premiums (CGL, and Workers Comp). Like most of us in the safety profession, I too believe that OSHA increasing fines will not change behavior very much. But, money is a motivator.

  7. Visits, inspections and education by OSHA is a positive thing but focusing on penalties will not bring about positive and lasting improvements is overall safety.
    The power for OSHA inspectors to issue fines brings on an adversarial and sometimes arrogant
    experience rather than raising the collective safety consciousness on the projects.
    Educating all workers and impowering them to work safe should be the goal of everyone.

  8. Additional fines are not the answer as small business in America is fighting now to survive,
    Safety for all is a major concern, but Goverment is not the answer, A sound understanding
    of the tasks at hand and common sense are the most valuable tools against job site accidents.
    Rather than fines, why not consider compensating employers for costs incurred for training.

  9. Why care about the fines if you’re doing everything OSHA askes. If you are, you have nothing to worry about. It’s the operations that push the envelope or just don’t care that the fines are for. It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, you can always train and guard against ignorance. But you have to “want” to do it. As for stupidity, who ever comes up with a cure for this will make Bill Gates look like a bagman (it’ll never happen). Colburn says it best.

  10. Negative incentives only, never work. There has to be a positive reward in conjunction with the right behavior. I have been involved with several OSHA inspections, and in every case it was obvious that the fines were OSHA’s motivator. The last OSHA inspector was aware that we had participated with our state program of volunteering for a state inspection without fines, as long as we made all of the suggested corrections in our program. When the OSHA inspector was made aware of who the state inspector was, he declared that he had previously worked for him, and now he was really motivated to show him up by finding something he missed. Standard OSHA practice is to reduce the fines by half, if you do not contest any violations. So you will not see many employers contesting even the wrong and rediculous alleged rule infractions. Current OSHA standard operating procedure is raising money to operate. Safety is secondary. Just another disguised tax that’s mislabeled.

  11. I have been involved in safety for over twenty years and every time I have been sitting in a OSHA Area Office for a Informal Hearing I have never had anyone ask or talk about how to improve training or how to ensure the violation never happens again, it is always why do you think the violation should be changed to something other then what was citied and yes we can reduce the fine, I have never had an Area Director offer to help in any other way, no offer of OSHA Onsite consultation, just pay the fine or file an appeal.

    The biggest problem with every violation I have been involved with has been do to employee misconduct.

    Employee fell off of building wearing his safety harness, was the foreman on the job to ensure safety of his crew, was the safety person with his previous employer, had a job box with every piece of fall protection he could ever use, was trained in fall protection by both his union and our company, had just reviewed our company policy, had all means and methods to do his job in a safe manner and did not tie off and it was the companies fault for not sending a baby sitter to the job. It is time for OSHA to stop going after the just owner and hold the employees liable for their action and yes if an employer is at fault then yes hold them responsible for their action or lack of action.

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