Tougher Penalties Discussed at Hearing

Companies demonstrating a “dangerous pattern of disregarding worker safety” must receive stricter penalties and stronger criminal provisions, a trade union expert told members of the Senate Employment and Workplace Protections Subcommittee of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee during an April hearing.

Eric Frumin, health and safety coordinator for Change to Win, a labor federation made up of seven unions, said companies such as Cintas, BP, McWane, House of Raeford and others demonstrate a blatant disregard for workplace safety and health laws and cut corners in the name of profit. He explained that while these large, multi-million corporations have the money and resources to provide safety equipment, training and other tools to ensure worker safety, their workers have been injured or killed allegedly due to company negligence.

“These companies know how to protect workers and they don't do it,” Frumin said.

Subcommittee Chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., proposed legislation calling for stiffer fines — as much as $100,000 for willful and repeat violations — and criminal penalties for repeat and willful violations of federal health and safety laws.

Kennedy said if other companies are able to provide safe work sites for their workers, there is no excuse for companies with repeat violations and citations not to do the same.

“It can be done, and American workers are entitled to have it done and it is not being done,” he said.

Gerard “Jerry” Scannell, who headed OSHA under the first Bush administration, explained to Occupational Hazards after the hearing that a management system must be fully integrated into OSHA standards and other requirements to ensure a safe working environment. He stressed that while standards and regulations are very important, they often exclude several aspects integral to a good safety culture, such as training.

“Just because you have a standard or set of regulations doesn't make this room safe,” he pointed out. “Someone could trip over a chair or a misplaced file cabinet. They [standards and regulations] are definitely important, but there is more to it.”

Carmen Bianco, an executive consultant with Behavioral Safety Technology (BST) who also testified at the hearing, explained to Occupational Hazards that company leaders can influence the effectiveness of injury reduction programs through the cultures they create. If the culture only focuses on productivity, for example, there isn't much room for safety, Bianco said. But when companies successfully communicate that productivity cannot exist without safety, they can better reduce on-the-job injuries.

As a result, companies should focus on “building a culture in which they value every employee and what they bring to the table” and add that focus to traditional safety programs that incorporate training, audits and other policies, said Bianco.

“Addressing leadership and culture is an important addition to training, audits and policies,” he said. “This does not substitute traditional programs, which are important for safety excellence, but alone are not sufficient to give organizations excellence and continuous improvement.”

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