Report: Average Workplace Safety Fine Less Than Cost of Funeral for Dead Worker

(Photo: Hwanation)(Photo: Hwanation)

A report released on Thursday asserts that American workers face increased risks on the job because the federal government isn’t cracking down hard enough on employers who skirt safety regulations.

More than 30,000 employees have died at work since President Obama took office in 2009, according to the study released by the non-profit Center for Progressive Reform (CPR).

The group blamed the high number of deaths on the low cost of non-compliance, finding the median Occupational Safety and Health Administration penalty imposed on employers to be only $5,800.

“Less than the cost of an average funeral, and far less than is necessary for penalties to have a genuine deterrent effect on companies tempted to skirt worker-safety rules,” CPR noted in its report, entitled “OSHA’s Discount on Danger.”

The group said meager punishments were that result of statutory caps that prevent OSHA from fining a company more than $70,000 per violation. The agency is currently addressing this problem thanks to new powers granted to it by Congress.

A budget deal struck last year included a provision allowing OSHA to adjust those fines to inflation going back to 1990.

The agency published new maximum penalties that are scheduled to take effect in August. They increase the fine for a “willful or repeated” violation from $70,000 to $124,709. Other fines will rise from $7,000 per violation to $12,471.

CPR also criticized OSHA for a “routine practice” of discounting its penalties. It said the agency reduces fines “as a matter of practice, rather than considering on a case-by-case basis whether a reduced penalty is warranted.” Reductions are supposed to be based on factors like the size of the employer and past history of violations.

The report found that on average, the agency reduces punishments by 25 percent before closing out cases. In 2012, private employers enjoyed $1.28 million in penalty reductions.

“Federal law required an act of Congress to increase the amount OSHA is allowed to fine companies that put their workers in danger,” said Thomas McGarity, one of the contributing authors of the report. “But the agency doesn’t need congressional legislation to fix the way it settles citations with scofflaw employers or to maximize the deterrent effect of the fines it gives to companies that break the law.”

CPR went on to make several recommendations to OSHA.

“Egregious safety failures should not be tolerated or rewarded with discounts,” the report stated, urging OSHA leaders to advise area offices to limit penalty reductions.

The non-profit also called on OSHA to engage more with employees and their representatives when monitoring workplace safety standards. That includes, “reaching out to workers and inviting them to participate in the settlement process” when incidents occur.

In a separate report last year, the agency was knocked for not protecting whistleblowers who had exposed workplace safety hazards before facing retaliation.

NBC Bay Areas News reported in October that over the last decade, OSHA dismissed the vast majority of retaliation claims, finding merit in only two percent of cases.

Tom Devine, the legal director of the Government Accountability Project reacted to the local NBC affiliate, calling the dismissal rate “obscene.”

“These are people who charge that their rights have been violated and 97 to 99 percent of the time the government rules, officially rules, that they had it coming,” he said.