OSHA Fines Weyerhaeuser $77,000 for Failing to Record Injuries

Aug. 3, 2004
The Buckhannon, W.Va. plant of Weyerhaeuser subsidiary Trus Joist applied to join OSHA's prestigious Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) before a complaint led OSHA to cite the company for recordkeeping violations.

According to OSHA, for 2 years, the manager of the Buckhannon plant failed to record, or record properly 38 injuries and illnesses on the OSHA 300 log. As part of a July 19 settlement with OSHA, Trus Joist agreed not to contest two "unclassified" violations for recordkeeping problems that occurred in 2002 and 2003.

"Weyerhaeuser regrets the failure to record work injury incidents in the proper manner at Buckhannon," said company spokesperson Susan Larkin. "Lapses in the recording of safety incidents are unacceptable, and are not in accordance with our company values."

According to OSHA's Web site, Weyerhaeuser has nine sites with safety and health programs good enough to qualify for VPP. The program is designed to recognize companies with exemplary safety and health programs and low injury and illness rates. Once in VPP, companies are exempt from programmed inspections.

OSHA Administrator John Henshaw has made increasing the number of VPP sites a major priority; the agency has recently made it easier for companies to qualify for VPP by relaxing the recorded injury and illness rate requirements for VPP applicants.

Buckhannon has withdrawn its VPP application, according to Marie Cassady, an OSHA deputy regional administrator familiar with the case.

"There were a lot of very positive outcomes as a result of this settlement," Cassady asserted. "The company agreed that for all of their Trus Joist facilities they will complete within nine months a third party independent audit of their recordkeeping practices." The settlement applies only to Trus Joist's15 facilities, not to Weyerhaeuser as a whole, because "it's felt that the institutional problem is with Trus Joist, not Weyerhaeuser," Cassady explained.

Trus Joist has been a subsidiary of Weyerhaeuser for at least 5 years, according to Pat Tyson, an OSHA attorney who is a partner in the law firm Constangy, Brooks & Smith.

Trus Joist also agreed to make statements about the importance of recordkeeping and promised that if other recordkeeping lapses are discovered, those responsible will be subject to the same disciplinary procedures used for other infractions of safety rules.

Larkin declined to say whether Weyerhaeuser had disciplined the plant manager responsible for the OSHA violations.

In the past, when OSHA encountered systematic recordkeeping problems, it used its "egregious" enforcement powers to cite companies for each instance of failing to record injuries, a method that can lead to fines in excess of $100,000. In this case, the agency chose to lump all 38 instances into a single unclassified violation and a $70,000 fine. According to OSHA's inspection report, the second citation for $7000 was because "a company executive" had not certified that the OSHA log was correct.

"I heard OSHA was looking at this as a willful or egregious penalty case, and that it was settled as an unclassified," commented Tyson.

A former acting OSHA administrator whose firm frequently performs independent OSHA recordkeeping audits, Tyson said that in his experience, "It is rare that companies record injuries and illnesses correctly some are way off, some only a little." Despite the pervasive problem with accurate recordkeeping, Tyson also said he was not surprised the agency was not publicizing the enforcement action against one of America's larger companies. Tyson asserted that OSHA is usually told by the White House to stay out of the news during an election year.

Plant mangers and workers are sometimes offered cash rewards for low injury and illness rates, and critics charge these incentives can lead to the under-reporting of workplace incidents.

"Compensation is partially based on evaluations, which include a number of areas, including safety," explained Larkin, when asked if Weyerhaeuser rewards employees for low injury and illness rates.

The 38 unrecorded incidents included 24 injuries, nine sprains, a fractured wrist, lacerated lip, hearing loss, rash, and a case of carpel tunnel syndrome from repetitive work that required surgery.

"We are fully committed to working with OSHA to ensure this does not happen again," said the company spokesperson.

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