Employers who violate workplace safety and health laws—even to the point where workers are killed or injured—now face such minimal penalties that too many ignore the law, witnesses told the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee during a hearing yesterday that coincided with Workers Memorial Day.
They called for tougher enforcement of safety laws and stronger sanctions against law-breaking employers.
Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of health and safety, told the panel:
Current OSHA enforcement and penalties are far too weak to provide any meaningful incentive for employers to address job hazards or to deter violations. As a result, workers are exposed to serious hazards that put them in danger and cause injury and death.
The maximum penalty for a serious violation that injures or even kills a worker is $7,000, and $70,000 for willful and repeated violations. But those are rarely assessed. Seminario said that the average penalty for a serious violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) is less than $1,000 and the average penalty when a worker is killed is $11,300.
Rebecca Foster told the committee that her 19-year-old step son Jeremy Foster was killed in October 2004 while working at a sawmill in Ola, Ark. OSHA cited his employer for a “serious” safety violation for improperly modifying a piece of equipment that resulted in his death. Yet the law only allows a fine up to $7,000 for such a violation.
We were appalled to see the amount of the fine: $4,500. Surely this was an error. Shortly afterwards we read in our state newspaper that the fine had been reduced to only $2,250. Did they place a value of our only son’s life at this amount?
Penalties for violating the OSH Act were last updated in 1990 and not indexed for inflation. Since the OSH Act became law 39 years ago, only 71 criminal cases have been prosecuted. But because the OSH Act classifies violations that result in the death of a worker as just Class B misdemeanors with a maximum penalty of six months in jail, the defendants in those cases served only a combined total of 42 months behind bars. Said University of Michigan Law School professor David M. Uhlmann:
Misdemeanor violations provide little deterrence and minimal incentive for prosecutors and law enforcement personnel, who reserve their limited resources for the crimes that Congress has deemed most egregious by making them felonies.
Last week, committee chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) and other committee members introduced legislation to strengthen and modernize the OSH Act. The Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067) would strengthen health and safety penalties, bring more workers under the protection of OSHA, protect workers who blow the whistle on employers who break the law and strengthen worker safety rights.
At yesterday’s hearing, Miller noted that “while both civil and criminal penalties are available under the OSH Act,”
criminal prosecutions of egregious violations of the law are only possible when a willful violation leads to the death of a worker. Even then, no matter how bad an employer acted, killing a worker is only a class B Misdemeanor
These penalties for failing to protect workers pale in comparison to the penalties for failing to protect animals or the environment generally. Even maliciously harassing a wild burro under the Federal Wild Horses and Burros Act can bring twice as much prison time as killing a worker after willfully violating the law.
Action is needed to put teeth into enforcement of the job safety law, and to bring OSHA enforcement into line with the enforcement practices and authorities under other safety and environmental laws.
OSHA can and should take action under the existing law to make enforcement more effective and to enhance penalties for violations that put workers in serious danger and cause death and injury.
The entire OSHA penalty policy and formulas should be reviewed and revamped. The agency should use its full statutory authority to impose meaningful penalties for serious, willful and repeat violations of the law, particularly in cases involving worker deaths.
Click here to read the witnesses’ testimony and for an archived video of the hearing. And here for shorter videos of the testimony.