Jackie Strawbridge Jul. 14, 2016, 2:45pm


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - Many businesses may want to add safety and health audits to their to-do list this summer.

The maximum penalties for Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations will see a nearly 80 percent rise this summer, after the federal government decided to bring them up to pace with inflation.

That means the penalty for serious violations (workplace hazards that could cause a debilitating or fatal accident or illness) and failure to correct a violation have jumped from $7,000 to $12,471 per violation. The penalty for willful or repeated violations (which occur when employers knowingly disregarded safety laws or acted with indifference to employee safety) has jumped from $70,000 to $124,709 per violation.

The new penalties will take effect after Aug. 1, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Anne Yuengert, a partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, told Legal Newsline that one of the most important ways businesses can prepare for the penalty increase is to ensure OSHA compliance sooner rather than later.

“The way to prepare is to audit their OSHA compliance to make sure that before these new fines go into place, they’ve done what they can to make sure they’re compliant,” Yuengert said.

She added that while many larger companies and organizations typically have safety or health departments, smaller businesses could reach out to OSHA consultants or compliance programs to make sure they are prepared.

Generally speaking, Yuengert said, a company could come to face OSHA due to an employee complaint, or if the agency notices a problematic pattern in reports from a particular employer or industry.

The increase marks the first time OSHA penalties have been adjusted since 1990, according to the DOL. It follows federal legislation requiring federal agencies to adjust their civil penalties to account for inflation; OSHA penalties were previously exempt from inflationary adjustments.

Aside from the raised penalty ceiling, Yuengert said that businesses may also face less leeway from OSHA in negotiating penalties.

“I do think that what it means is that OSHA’s going to become more aggressive in follow-up,” she said. “There’s more money at stake. I think it’s likely that it’s going to be a little harder to negotiate your fines down because the fines have increased so much.”

“But we’re going to have to wait to see what OSHA really does,” she added.

Yuengert noted that the penalty increase is not the only OSHA change coming down the line that businesses should prepare for.

For example, a new OSHA rule taking effect Jan. 1 will require certain employers to submit injury and illness data electronically, which the agency asserts will allow for more efficient analysis.

“I think that in a lot of ways, that kind of goes under the radar,” Yuengert said.

OSHA has also issued a new rule aimed at curbing lung cancer and other diseases by requiring employers to limit exposure to crystalline silica.

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