WASHINGTON (March 24, 2010)—The administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and an attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce differed sharply on the value of a bill that would mandate stiffer penalties for employers' workplace safety violations.
The Protecting America's Workers Act would crucially update the Occupational Safety and Health Act, giving its regulations some teeth and putting it on a par with every other federal safety law, said OSHA Administrator David Michaels at a March 16 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Workplace Protections.
“The criminal penalty provisions of the OSH Act have never been updated since the law was enacted in 1970, and are weaker than virtually every other safety and health and environmental law,” Michaels said.
As an example, Michaels cited a case in 2001 in which OSHA fined the owners of a refinery $175,000—the maximum allowed under the OSH Act—for the death of a worker whose body literally dissolved in the explosion of a tank of sulfuric acid. The Environmental Protection Agency fined the refinery $10 million for the deaths of thousands of crabs and fish in the same explosion.
But Jonathan L. Snare, a Washington attorney representing the Chamber of Commerce, argued that increasing penalties for workplace accidents would do nothing to help small business employers who struggle to understand their obligations under the OSH Act.
“This employer is obviously better served with more outreach and compliance assistance materials than increased penalties,” Snare said. “Again, the goal here is compliance and prevention, not sanction. This approach benefits employers, but more importantly it benefits employees.”