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Shamefully low fines for workplace safety violations: a Q & A

Last week, National Public Radio carried a heart-wrenching story of the death of a worker in a Colorado meatpacking plant.

The man was 54, married with three children and a grandchild. Working a maintenance shift at a huge facility in Greely, his hair and clothing got caught in a machine that was missing a proper guard. Before he could protect himself, the man was pinned down by a conveyor belt and suffocated.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a fine to the company that operated the plant for the missing machine guard. But it was for only $38,500.

Do such shamefully low fines really do any good in improving workplace safety? In this post, we will use a Q & A format to address this question.

Do OSHA administrators really believe that minimal fines can change company behavior and make workplaces safer?

Probably not. A former OSHA official quoted by NPR called the $38,500 fine for a violation that claimed a worker's life "embarrassingly low."

The agency is surely aware that such minimal fines may not do much to deter companies from allowing their workplaces to violate federal safety standards.

But Congress has placed limits on OSHA's ability to respond to safety violations more aggressively.

Have fines for workplace safety violations always been this low?

No. The authority for OSHA to issue such fines comes from a federal law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Fines are based not on injuries or fatalities, but on violations of federal safety standards. In other words, a company can be fined even if there are no injuries or fatalities.

In 1990, Congress allowed other federal agencies to increase penalty amounts, according to the rate of inflation. But OSHA was not permitted to do that.

Finally, this month, OSHA was granted permission to adjust its penalties based the inflation rate. But those penalties are so small to begin with that they really lack the ability to serve as a stick to force companies to improve workplace safety.

Does OSHA have other tools to try to encourage companies to do a better job of protecting worker safety?

After the death of the maintenance worker in Colorado, OSHA tried putting out a press release to shame the company into better compliance with safety standards.

In a crowded media landscape, however, a press release has only a marginal effect.

In theory, OSHA could do a lot more than it does with workplace inspections. But realistically the agency has the resources only to visit a very small minority of job sites.

Missing machine guards are one of the most common safety violations. What industries are those violations most common in?

It isn't only meatpacking where missing machine guards cause injuries and claim lives. The construction and manufacturing industries are also very much affected.

Given the reality of OSHA's low fines and spotty or non-existent inspections, how can companies with workplace safety issues be held accountable?

One way would be for companies themselves to accept an ethical responsibility to be fully committed to improving workplace safety.

There is also the workers' compensation system. If you are injured at work and need help pursuing work comp benefits, it makes sense to discuss your situation with an experienced attorney.

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Making a false or fraudulent workers’ compensation claim is a felony subject to 5 years in prison or up to $50,000 or double the value of the fraud, whichever is greater, or by both imprisonment and fine.

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