The $100,000 Club

OSHA's Oct. 15 Quick Notes e-mail tells us the agency pursued 164 significant cases, those with penalties of $100,000 or more, from October 2009 to September 2010. Considering Dr. David Michaels hasn't been in charge of the agency for that entire time -- the Senate confirmed him Dec. 3, 2009 -- that's a fast pace.

Michaels gave a speech Oct. 6 to a United Steelworkers conference in which he said OSHA has returned to the original intent of the OSH Act by putting a firm focus on standards and enforcement. Safety and health professionals aren't wholly supportive, as the response to last week's "Is OSHA Killing the American Dream?" entry in this blog shows.

The e-mail says OSHA used its egregious citation policy in 20 of the 164 cases, meaning it cited those employers on a per-instance basis rather than grouping similar violations and setting the penalty on that basis. The egregious policy, used "when an employer exhibits deliberately violative conduct or indifference to employee safety and health or the law," in OSHA's words, has never been used as frequently by OSHA during any similar period in the past decade, it says.

"The increase in significant and egregious cases demonstrates OSHA's commitment to aggressively enforcing its standards when employers show indifference to protecting the safety, health and lives of their workers," OSHA said. "The increase results from better inspection targeting, more follow-up inspections and the addition of more compliance officers. In addition, inspectors are issuing a higher percentage of citations for violations that seriously endanger workers or show an employer's willful disregard for their safety. Also, many referrals to other facilities within the same company lead to more significant cases, such as the serious electrical and other hazards found at many U.S. Postal Service facilities across the country."

So the agency is hitting violators very hard, which may explain why some in the profession accuse it of arbitrarily hurting small businesses.

But look at the egregious targets and consider whether they got what they deserved: OSHA said its egregious cases during the period include the BP Products North America refinery in Texas City, Texas; the Kleen Energy power plant in Middletown, Conn.; and the Cooperative Plus grain handling facility in Burlington, Wis.

Great Britain's government shares the view that UK small businesses are victimized by safety and health regulations. It issued a report Oct. 15 calling for a rollback. We don't know what the U.S. midterm elections Nov. 2 will bring, but big Republican gains may bring a strong push to halt OSHA's aggressive approach.

Posted by Jerry Laws on Oct 18, 2010