Senate Democrats reintroduced legislation that would amend the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act by expanding its coverage to public-sector workers and contractors, increasing whistle-blower protections, and significantly raising employer civil and criminal penalties for violations.
Criticizing the 1970 law governing workplace safety as dated and weak, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., reintroduced the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA) on March 22, 2013.
“This legislation is a long-overdue update to the act and a good step toward making workplaces safer and healthier across America,” Murray said in a media statement.
PAWA has been introduced as stand-alone legislation as well as been incorporated into larger safety bills over the past several congressional sessions, but Republican opposition continues to limit its prospects.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. As with its predecessors, this latest version is not expected to progress far.
What’s in the Bill
The revised PAWA includes provisions that would require host employers to protect all workers at multiemployer worksites—not just those they directly employ—and to account for their injuries and illnesses on required logs.
A multiemployer worksite is defined as a workplace where more than one employer is working, primarily under a host employer/contractor relationship. Currently, injuries to contractors do not appear on the record of the company that owns the worksite where the injury occurred.
Endorsing the legislation, the AFL-CIO said that the new multiemployer worksite provisions address “a growing area of concern” and that “there is a duty to protect those workers as well.”
Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a national trade association representing the construction industry, disapproves of the latest bill.
“We are open to OSH Act reform,” said ABC Director of Legislative Affairs Sean Thurman, “but any successful reform is going to have to incorporate collaborative approaches to education, training and technical assistance.”
Thurman told SHRM Online that the new provisions fail to take into account the nature of many construction worksites. “The bill takes a one-size-fits-all approach to worksite liability,” he said. “In the field a general contractor may have much less direct involvement on day-to-day jobsite activities than is conventionally thought. Expecting the general contractor to be the end-all point of contact on a construction jobsite conflicts with reality.” Moreover, specialty contractors are likely to know much more about safety practices in their particular field than anyone else onsite, he added.
In addition to these new requirements, the bill contains provisions found in earlier versions of PAWA. These include:
*Expanding OSH Act protection to include federal, state and local public-sector workers.
*Increasing penalties. Currently, an employer whose willful violation of the law leads to a worker’s death faces a misdemeanor and a maximum six-month jail sentence. PAWA would make knowing violations that lead to a worker’s death a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The legislation also would increase civil penalties, which have not been changed since 1990.
A violation deemed “serious”—one that, by OSHA’s definition, “would most likely result in death or serious physical harm”—now carries a maximum fine of $7,000; the bill would raise that to $12,000. The measure would set a minimum penalty of $50,000 for a worker’s death caused by a willful violation, raise the maximum penalty for willful or repeat violations from $70,000 to $120,000 and allow fines to increase periodically with inflation. OSHA is one of a few federal agencies excluded from a law that allows fines to rise over time with inflation.
The bill would force employers to correct hazards cited by inspectors, even if they are contesting them. Under current rules, OSHA can’t force a business to fix a hazard while the citation is being contested, a process that can last years.
*Protecting whistle-blowers by updating the administrative procedures to process whistle-blower claims.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.
Bill Would Add Rights for Victims’ Families, Whistle-Blowers, SHRM Online Safety & Security, May 2010
Bill to Strengthen OSHA Penalties Debated, SHRM Online Safety & Security, March 2010
Protecting America’s Workers Act of 2009: A Plan to Give OSHA a Lot More Teeth, SHRM Online Safety & Security, December 2009
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