Acting Tough: When Cameras Leave, OSHA Penalties Wither

[tweetmeme]After reading a recent online article about an Eau Claire, Wisconsin company being cited $58,000 by OSHA (OSHA inspectors say they found repeat violations at the facility, meaning that OSHA inspected the facility, found violations, issued citations, and then came back at some point and found the exact same safety violations continued to exist) I found myself shaking my head in dismay.   The company, in this case, had done nothing to correct the issues in the time between the inspections.   The problems centered around providing operator training for powered industrial truck use.

I certainly can empathize with a company faced with the prospect of bringing up a facility’s operations to comply with OSHA when major infrastructure issues exist.   The financial considerations can be daunting, and sometimes the logistics of designing and implementing engineering controls take time.   In the interim, they may have to work around the issue the best they can, and in some situations they may not be in compliance with OSHA, but trying to act responsibly and safe nonetheless.   However; in this case…providing basic operator training?   I refuse to believe that a company can’t turn over the sofa cushions and find a few hundred dollars to pay a trainer to come in, and spend two to four hours working with their operators to get the required training.   So to me this is a no brainer, the company should probably be penalized for its apparent lack of responsiveness.

The article continued on to reveal the final settlement agreement with OSHA…and hold on to your hats…the final penalty was reduced by 62%!   Why?    I am very curious as to the reasoning behind the reduction.   These were “repeat” violations, not first time offenses that could be negotiated down based on good faith promises to conduct the training.   Now, please don’t misinterpret my reaction, as though I feel business should be writing checks to the government for everything little thing.   However, I do believe that if you are breaking laws or not complying with regulations you should be held accountable.  Afterall your competitors are required to comply, so why should you get a free pass? 

Maintaining a workplace in substantial compliance with OSHA isn’t a daunting safety endeavor as some would have you believe.   Many studies have been done on the cost of safety in the workplace and it is widely understood that spending money of safety is an investment in your company that has a very attractive return on investment (ROI).  Liberty Mutual’s study on this subject revealed that for every $1 spent you should receive a $3-4 return.  OVer 90% of executives surveyed in the study indicated they recognized this ROI.  Not maintaining an effective workplace safety program is a failing of basic business principles of maximizing your ROI.  The analogy I have heard, and use myself is this; think of yourself receiving a letter grade for a class, such as when you were in high school or college, if your effort level is simply to maintain OSHA compliance you would receive a “C” maybe a “C-” in that class.   You would pass the class, but there is a lot more you could do to have a best in class grade with respect to safety.   It isn’t that difficult!   People who argue differently are those folks who probably are used to running average to below average companies, and that’s too bad for them, and especially too bad for their employees.   

I found this article from ProPublica.org, a non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, on how OSHA routinely reduces its penalties once the news cameras have moved on.   I encourage you to read it, and think about the recent $87Million fines levied against BP in Texas City, how much do you really think they will pay in the end?

Acting Tough: When Cameras Leave, OSHA Penalties Wither
by Robert Lewis, ProPublica – September 17, 2008
Smoke billows during a fire at the Imperial Sugar Company plant on Feb. 7, 2008 in Port Wentworth, Ga. (Credit: Stephen Morton/AP Photo) After an explosion tore through a sugar refinery in Georgia in February, killing 14 workers and injuring 40, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration acted swiftly, announcing an $8.8 million fine against Imperial Sugar for not protecting workers against the hazards of combustible dust.   The proposed fine, disclosed last month, is the third highest in the agency’s 37-year history.   But if that same history is a guide, OSHA will end up collecting half that much money, or less.

ProPublica reviewed the agency’s previous 25 highest announced penalties.   In 19 cases, the fines were sharply reduced after appeals and negotiations, dropping an average of 65 percent. (read the full article)

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