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Progress: Budget Deal Hikes OSHA Fines

First Increase Since 1990 Will Catch up to Inflation

Got any milk lately? These days, a gallon will set you back about $3.89, or 40 percent higher than it was 25 years ago. Other common consumer goods – a postage stamp, a gallon of gas, a dozen eggs – have seen even steeper price increases, nearly or more than doubling in cost since 1990.

But you know what’s stayed exactly the same? The fines paid by employers who violate U.S. workplace health and safety laws. A 1990 federal law that allowed other federal agencies to hike fines and penalties to keep pace with inflation specifically excluded the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

That’s about to change, thanks to a provision in the recently passed budget agreement between President Obama and Congress. It allows OSHA – finally – to catch up on increased costs since 1990, and to index fines and penalties to inflation from now on.

AFL-CIO Director of Health and Safety Peg Seminario told the Wall Street Journal that higher fines are “progress… bringing the penalties for worker safety violations up-to-date.” At National COSH, we couldn’t agree more. Fines alone don’t make workplaces safer – but allowing employers to pay minimal costs when they fail to control workplace hazards is dangerous for everybody.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI), the standard benchmark for inflation, has risen about 80 percent since 1990. The precise increase in OSHA fines is yet to be determined, pending regulatory guidance from the Office and Management and Budget (due Jan. 31, 2016) and publication of an interim rule by OSHA (due July 31, 2016.)

Assuming all that happens on schedule, the new fines will be effective on Aug. 31, 2016. An estimated 80 percent hike would bring penalties for the most egregious “willful” and “repeat” violations to $125,000, an increase from the current $70,000 maximum. The fine for a “serious” violation could increase to $12,500, up from the current $7,000.

We’ve still got a long way to go, because current penalties are not an effective deterrent against safety violations that put workers at risk of getting injured, maimed or even killed.

Even six-figure fines, for example, won’t have much impact on large companies with billions of dollars in revenue. In actual practice, many fines are much lower, even for tragic – and preventable – events. In 2014, reports the AFL-CIO, a death on the job investigated by U.S. OSHA resulted in a median fine of just $5,050.

For more on the human cost of unsafe workplaces, see the U.S. Worker Fatality Database. For ideas on how to empower workers and enforce our right to safe workplaces, see the National COSH Policy Platform.

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