The many lives of an OSHA violation

Last month in the article, Court decision: OSHA not legally bound by five-year look back for repeat violations, we discussed the number of ways a repeat violation can be harmful to employers. When there is a good faith defense, it may be well worth contesting citations, even if they are minor. Here are four more reasons to do so:

In early April, Susquehanna Supply Company, Inc., of Williamsport, Pennsylvania pleaded guilty and paid a $250,000 fine for willfully committing an OSHA violation that resulted in an employee’s death. The employee died when he was working in a trench and one of the vertical dirt walls collapsed, burying him up to his chest and crushing him against the bridge’s concrete abutment. This is a reminder that OSHA fines can have multiple lives.

The highest criminal category that can be pursued against employers for OSHA violations is a misdemeanor. However, a 2015 memorandum of understanding between the Department of Justice and OSHA put some bite into the bark of criminal charges by making prosecution available through other agencies, particularly for violations involving an employee fatality and a willful conduct.

In addition to the possibility of criminal prosecution, there is also the possibility that third parties will use an OSHA citation as evidence of negligence in companion liability cases, a worker will use the intentional tort argument in a personal injury case, or an estate may sue for wrongful death. Each state has developed its own standards through legislation and legal precedent about the use of evidence of OSHA violations and cases have met with mixed success.

In some industries, an employer’s safety record is an important factor in the competitive process for new business. It’s easy to do an establishment search on OSHA’s website or obtain the information from a safety network. Bid documents will often include a question about willful, repeat or serious OSHA citations. The goal should be to reach a resolution with OSHA that will not affect the competitive position.

Also, some states, give workers an increase in benefits if the injury is tied to an OSHA violation. Some examples are:

  • California -An employee is injured by serious and willful misconduct of the employer -award increased by 50%
  • Illinois – An employer willfully violates the state Health and Safety Act (ILCS 225) -award increased by 25%
  • Massachusetts – Employer’s serious and willful misconduct causes injury -award is doubled
  • Missouri – Failure of employer to comply with state statute or order by the Missouri Division of Workers’ Compensation -award increased by 15%
  • North Carolina – Willful failure of employer to comply with statutory requirements or order by the North Carolina Industrial Commission – award increased by 10%
  • Wisconsin – Injury caused by failure of employer to comply with any statute, rule or order of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development -award increased by 15%

OSHA citations can be deceptive; there’s a lot more involved than paying the fine and abating the citation. They can lead to additional lawsuits, penalties by other regulatory agencies, failed bids, and increased workers’ comp costs.

Employers must send a notice of intention to contest within 15 working days of receipt of the OSHA notice of proposed penalty. Every notice of intention to contest shall specify whether it is directed to the citation or to the proposed penalty, or both. The decision to contest is a business decision that needs to be carefully weighed.

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