A new report from ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, proves that the old adage "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," works just as well for reducing OSHA fines as anything else in life.
ProPublica's review of OSHA’s 25 highest announced penalties published on Salon.com reveals that in 19 of the cases – every contested fine – fines were reduced by an average of 65 percent after appeals and negotiations. In one case that was settled on Sept. 8, 1993 and involved an explosion at a Hercules facility, a $6.32 million fine was reduced by 98 percent, to $100,000.
The investigation, by Robert Lewis, a reporter for ProPublica, also found that five of the 25 cases took more than 10 years to settle and that citations for potentially criminal violations were frequently adjusted to lesser charges that carry only civil penalties.
“When we issue a big penalty and a press release, that has an impact above and beyond the company,” Richard Fairfax, OSHA’s director of enforcement programs, told Lewis. “Most employers are going to look at that and go back and say, ‘Let me see what I’m doing at my place.’”
According to the report, there are a variety of reasons for the reduced fines. Current and former OSHA officials told Lewis that a lack of staff and resources in OSHA’s legal department contribute to the relaxed fines. Lewis also found that vacancies on the OSHA Review Commission contributed to the backlog of cases and negotiated settlements.
The article on Salon.com highlights the case of Donald Smith, a millwright at a General Motors plant in Oklahoma City. Smith was told to repair a piece of machinery and by all accounts, Smith was unfamiliar with the equipment. According to a supervisor, Smith even made a comment about not wanting to get “my damned head caught in that thing.” Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened: Smith was repairing the equipment on the morning of April 4, 1991, when a lift table suddenly turned on, crushing his head and killing him instantly.
Following an investigation, OSHA proposed fines of $2.78 million in September 1991 for 57 violations, mostly related to lockout/tagout. In addition, the Department of Labor referred the case to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution, which declined to pursue the case.
GM contested the case before an administrative law judge who, despite finding that plant management and supervisors had not followed the facility’s own lockout/tagout procedures or properly trained workers in lockout/tagout, reduced the fine by nearly $1 million to $1.95 million in 1994.
Both DOL and GM appealed the case to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. It took 16 years in total for the case to be resolved. In December 2007, only 26 violations remained and the fine was reduced by 75 percent to $692,000.
Because companies do not have to abate hazards while awaiting the outcome of appeals through an administrative law judge or the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, many past and present OSHA officials told Lewis it often is preferable to reach a settlement quickly. That way, hazards are abated and additional workers are protected, rather than dragging a case out for years and potentially risking additional injuries or fatalities.
Go to Salon.com to read the complete report. To see a list of OSHA's top 25 fines and what the cited companies eventually paid, visit the ProPublica Web site.