Should OSHA Fine Workers for Unsafe Actions?

Sept. 11, 2013
Imagine this scenario: During an inspection of your facility, an OSHA compliance officer observes a worker performing his duties without safety goggles, gloves or earplugs - despite ubiquitous signage declaring that the aforementioned PPE is mandatory at all times on the shop floor.
When the compliance officer confronts the worker and reminds him of the importance of proper PPE, the worker shrugs his shoulders and replies, "I'll take my chances."
The OSHA inspector promptly pulls out a pad of paper and issues the safety scofflaw a $500 fine.

Imagine this scenario: During an inspection of your facility, an OSHA compliance officer observes a worker performing his duties without safety goggles, gloves or earplugs – despite ubiquitous signage declaring that the aforementioned PPE is mandatory at all times on the shop floor.

When the compliance officer confronts the worker and reminds him of the importance of proper PPE, the worker shrugs his shoulders and replies, "I'll take my chances."

The OSHA inspector promptly pulls out a pad of paper and issues the safety scofflaw a $500 fine.

In the United States, OSHA holds employers – not employees – accountable for safety infractions, regardless of the circumstances.

But that's not the case in Alberta, Canada. At least not anymore.

Recently approved legislation in Alberta authorizes safety and health authorities "to issue tickets of up to $500 on the spot to employers or workers caught flouting workplace-safety rules on the job site," according to an article in the Calgary Herald.

Unlike OSHA, Alberta Occupational Health and Safety has not had the ability to issue monetary fines to workplaces (or workers) for safety infractions – until now.  

Starting Oct. 1, the agency will have the authority to issue fines of up to $10,000 to negligent employers, according to the Calgary Herald.

Starting Jan. 1, the agency will be able to issue on-site tickets to workers for safety violations.

If that seems draconian, consider that the new enforcement authority actually brings Alberta "in line with Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan – all of which either already have, or are considering, similar systems," according to the Calgary Herald.

The legislation certainly raises an interesting argument.

On the one hand, there are those – such as Alberta Federation of Labor president Gil McGowan – who believe that punishing employees for safety infractions "takes the onus off employers to invest in proper safety training and procedures."

"Employers will end up washing their hands of responsibility for health and safety and saying it's the workers' problem and the workers' fault," McGowan told the Calgary Herald. "That's not the way to make workplaces safer in this province."

On the other hand, there is the argument that "workplace safety is a shared responsibility."

"You can often have policies in place, but if they're not being followed, you're not in a safe workplace," Craig Loewen, press secretary to Human Services Minister Dave Hancock, who is responsible for Occupational Health and Safety, told the Calgary Herald.

"And if you're one of the workers that is following the proper safety procedures and guidelines, but one of your co-workers is not, you're also put at risk."

There are more than 60 workplace-safety infractions that could prompt Alberta authorities to issue a ticket to employers or employees, according to the article. Those infractions range from failing to wear proper PPE to smoking near flammable materials.

If a worker receives a ticket, he or she can plead guilty and fight the citation in court, according to the Calgary Herald.

What are your thoughts?

About the Author

Josh Cable Blogger | Senior Editor

Josh Cable is senior editor of EHS Today, a Penton publication. In his nearly 15 years as a journalist, he has covered a wide range of topics, including banking and finance, occupational safety and health, government purchasing and U.S. manufacturing. As a former editorial-staff member of Penton’s IndustryWeek and Occupational Hazards, he has toured dozens of manufacturing facilities, establishing himself as a subject-matter expert in world-class production, quality and safety systems.

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