The Labor Department plans to increase its oversight of the nation's most dangerous work sites, placing a new focus on companies that repeatedly and willfully violate federal safety laws, officials announced yesterday.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will concentrate on "high-gravity" offenders by conducting follow-up inspections, tracking corporate ownership to expand inspections to other sites, and requiring problem employers to hire safety consultants. OSHA will also go to federal courts to seek enforcement of citations and to request contempt-of-court orders if companies keep refusing to comply with OSHA safety rules.
"Our whole premise is that enforcement should be directed to facilities that need enforcement," said OSHA Administrator John L. Henshaw, who said about 100 companies emerge as repeat offenders each year in agency enforcement actions. "This is a targeting initiative."
About 4.9 million Americans were injured on the job in 2001, and 8,786 died as a result of workplace injuries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The deaths includes people killed in the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Without them, the number of deaths would have been down 1 percent from the previous year.
Workplace safety advocate Ron Hayes, whose 19-year-old son died in a grain silo accident in 1993, applauded the OSHA action. "It's been a long time in coming," he said. The company that employed his son had been cited by OSHA 20 times in the 18 years before his son's death, he said. "This should have been done years ago."
Peg Seminario, director of health and safety for the AFL-CIO, said that she considered OSHA's new emphasis on repeat offenders "a good thing" but that the government is reducing penalties on employers rather than increasing them. She said an analysis of OSHA fines has found that they have declined, to an average of $903 in 2002 from $1,108 in 1999, with fines for "willful" violations of OSHA rules dropping to $26,888 from $35,902.
Henshaw said fines were not an effective deterrent to companies that flout safety rules. "It's an activity measure, not a good measure," he said in an interview. "Our job is to ensure a safe workplace, not rack up penalties."
Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) has proposed legislation that would increase criminal penalties to 10 years from six months for employers who willfully violate safety laws, causing a worker to die.
"The changes that the administration announced today are a small step in the right direction, but insufficient to deal with the serious dangers that American workers face on the job," Corzine said in a statement.
Employment lawyer Lawrence Z. Lorber, who was a Labor Department official in the Ford administration, said the department has long struggled with how to deal with what he called "bad-actor recidivists," companies that have in essence told the government to "take a hike."
"They're saying 'We don't care, we'll pay your fines, because this way we make more money,' " Lorber said. "At the end of the day, they're saying 'Catch me if you can.' "
Lorber said the agency is trying to increase awareness of safety hazards in an anti-regulatory environment where fines have proven ineffective at changing behavior at some workplaces.
"This will have some salutary purpose," Lorber said. "People will read it and know OSHA is alive."