Bill Offers Employers Grace Period Before Paying OSHA Fines

By Roy Maurer May 7, 2015
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Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., introduced legislation that would provide employers an opportunity to abate certain safety violations before having to pay fines levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The OSHA Excessive Fines Relief Act would offer employers a grace period to fix “trivial” safety and health violations before being subject to Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act penalties when violations are discovered.

Hartzler said the legislation is intended to protect small employers from facing an immediate fine for “minor, trivial rules” and would not apply to serious, repeat or willful violations.

Under the legislation, the penalty would be dropped if an employer abates the violation within the time specified in the citation.

“Some of the OSHA fines that small businesses have been slapped with recently are bizarre,” Hartzler said in a statement. “Facing an immediate fine—sometimes up to $7,000—because a yellow line was not painted 10 feet from the edge of a flat roof, or because the emergency eyewash water was too cold, is silly,” she said.

The bill would provide only minimal relief to employers, said Valerie Butera, a labor and employment attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of Epstein Becker Green. “OSHA rarely issues citations classified as other than serious, and when it does, the proposed penalties are usually quite small. A far more impactful means of providing employers relief from excessive fines would reduce the penalty ceilings for more-commonly issued OSHA citations such as alleged serious, willful and repeat violations,” she said.

Are OSHA Fines Too Low?

Many have long argued that OSHA fines are actually too low to be an effective deterrent. “The problem rests with the fact that OSHA fines are so low that most employers simply view them as a cost of doing business rather than as a deterrent to noncompliance with OSHA standards,” said Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

“The average penalty for a serious violation at the federal OSHA level is $1,972 and a mere $1,043 for OSHA state plans,” she said. And very few cases are prosecuted criminally, she added. “Since the OSH Act was passed in 1970, 88 cases have been prosecuted, resulting in a total of 100 months in jail time. During this period there were 390,000 worker deaths due to traumatic injuries,” Vogel said.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., recently reintroduced legislation April 28, 2015, that would raise the minimum penalty amount for a willful or repeat violation from $5,000 to $50,000 and would make felony charges available for employers’ repeated and willful violations of the OSH Act that result in a worker’s death or serious injury.

“The Congresswoman’s bill is wrongheaded,” Vogel said. “Workers need stronger safety and health protections, and federal OSHA and state plans need the tools and resources for better oversight of workplaces and enhanced enforcement. Deregulation would have the opposite effect.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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