Lawmakers: OSHA Criminal, Civil Penalties Weak and Ineffective

In an April 29 Senate hearing, congressional lawmakers described OSHA as being “dangerously ineffective” in protecting workers, and claimed the agency's civil and criminal penalties in workplace fatality cases are too weak and fail to deter company violations.

During the hearing, held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., called for Congress to strengthen current workplace safety laws, strengthen provisions for higher penalties and criminal prosecution and insist on stronger OSHA enforcement.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act, created 37 years ago and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, successfully helped reduce workplace accidents and fatalities. Legislators and labor leaders argue that in recent years, however, OSHA has exercised lax oversight, causing workplace safety to suffer.

Kennedy, the committee's chairman, released a report that analyzed OSHA penalties in fatality cases. The report focused on monetary penalties, criminal sanctions and the impact on the workers' families.

It said the maximum civil penalty for a safety violation is $70,000, a stark contrast to penalties issued by the Department of Commerce, for example, which is authorized to impose a $325,000 penalty for a violation of the South Pacific Tuna Act.

“If you improperly import an exotic bird, you can go to jail for two years. If you deal in counterfeit money, you're looking at 20 years,” Kennedy pointed out. “But if you gamble with the lives of your employees and one of them is killed, you risk only 6 months in jail.”

In addition, Kennedy's report found that OSHA consistently reduces penalties imposed on employers in fatality cases by almost 40 percent. OSHA officials, Kennedy added, routinely downgrade the severity of the violations or withdraw the violations entirely in the course of investigations.

Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO's director of safety and health, who testified at the hearing, noted that since the passage of the OSH Act, only 68 cases have been prosecuted, with defendants serving a total of 42 months in jail. She claimed that Kennedy's bill, Protecting America's Workers Act, “would improve the foundation for worker's jobs safety protections.”

No OSHA officials were invited to testify at the hearing, but in a statement issued afterwards, OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. commented, “Election-year political theater cannot mask the truth that under this administration, workplace illness, injury and fatality rates are the lowest in OSHA's history.”

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